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Chinese Foot Binding

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 Artwork depicting the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding.

The term 'foot binding' is self-explanatory. It brings to mind images of ancient Chinese rickshaws, dainty shoes and women with feet grotesquely contorted by swathes of bandages, usually accompanied by the reek of infected, gangrenous flesh. Although this picture may invoke revulsion in most of us today, the art of foot binding was in fact once popular and revered in ancient China as a symbol of status and identity. In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 4.5 billion Chinese women had been subjected to this painful art in the last one thousand years.

The History of Foot Binding

The general consensus is that the roots of foot binding lie in the Sung1  dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, although there are numerous folk lore and legends surrounding its actual origin. One of these dates back to the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 BC), attributing the origin of foot binding to a fox who assumed the guise of the Shang Empress and tried to conceal its paws; another claims that the Empress was club-footed and asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the model of beauty in the court2. A more plausible story, however, tells of a Sung dynasty prince named Li Yu who had a fetish for tiny feet and who made his concubine dance a variation of the ballet called the 'toe dance' with her feet bound. The concubine, whose name was Yao Niang, was supposed to have been so graceful that she 'skimmed on top of golden lilies'. (This probably should not be taken literally.)

By the end of the 12th Century the practice of binding feet was rampant and severe. The Mongols, who supplanted the Sung dynasty with their own Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD), were huge supporters of foot binding. The foot-binding tradition gradually spread from members of the dynasty court to the wealthy during the reign of the Ming Emperor, and to all the social classes as foot binding gradually became associated with marriage and status.

The 17th Century saw a decline of the ongoing tradition of foot binding as the Manchu barbarians seized control of the Ming dynasty and supplanted it with their Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). The Manchus abhorred all Han Chinese traditions; above all, their attire and adornment, including foot-binding, and imposed death penalties on those who breached the fashion code. Men were made to shave their heads; women were made to unbind their feet. The Emperor Kangxi tried in 1664 to impose a ban upon foot binding. However, his futile attempt was thwarted barely three or four years later when the Ministry of Rites submitted a 'memorial' urging the retraction of the ban.

It wasn't until 1895 that the first anti-foot binding society was formed in Shanghai, whose members emphasised the point that the ordeal a woman went through in the painful process was an obstacle to her education. The daughters of the society members were guaranteed partners, either with members of the society or with more liberal non-members who did not insist on bound feet as a prerequisite for marriage.

However, it was not until 1911 when the Manchu dynasty was toppled by Sun Yat Sen's revolution (which was followed by the formation of the New Republic of China) that foot binding was outlawed. In 1915 the Chinese government declared the practice illegal and sent inspectors to issue monetary fines to those who continued to uphold the tradition.

Despite the outlawing of this custom, foot binding continued in isolated regions of China until the 1930s. Half a century later, the last factory manufacturing shoes for women with bound feet in Hanbin, China ceased production of what had come to be identified with pain and suffering.

Interestingly enough, the Punti Chinese who migrated to Hawaii brought with them the foot-binding tradition, and only surrendered this custom when a ban was imposed in 1898. On the face of it, that is.

The Art of Foot Binding

Foot binding has various meanings and manifestations, from the wearing of tight socks for a slender look, to the more drastic contortion of the foot to make it physically smaller. Contrary to the myth that foot binding was only practised among women of the upper class, foot binding was in fact popular among all the Han Chinese in Northern China. The only people who spurned the tradition were the Hakka community and the Tanka boat dwellers. And as opposed to the belief that only women were subjected to this exquisite form of torture, male dancers and prostitutes also had their feet bound, presumably so that they would be more appealing in their art.

The general purpose of foot binding, however, was to restrict the growth of the feet so that they would not exceed 3-4 inches. Small feet were considered beautiful and elegant. A foot measuring a perfect three inches was called a 'lotus of gold'; a four-inch foot was considered 'silver'; and one measuring more than four inches was an 'iron lotus'. Thus the process normally began when a girl was between the age of three to eleven years old, the justification being that the pre-bone cartilage of the arch, which was predominantly water, would be more easily molded than matured bone. The mothers or more experienced female relatives who performed the foot binding were at least thoughtful enough to carry it out in late fall or winter when the foot was generally numb so that the pain would not be so severe3.

Those who are especially squeamish may wish to skip the rest of this section.

We begin with the ideals of the bound foot:

  • A foot should be ideally no longer than three inches.

  • The cleft between the heel and the sole should be 2-3 inches deep.

  • The foot should appear as an extension of the leg rather than a stand for the body.

This of course means that to achieve these golden ideals, the foot has to be contorted to the extent that the soles are extremely concave, and that the foot is in practice literally folded in two. Don't grimace.

The foot-binding ritual traditionally begins with the clipping of the toenails and the soaking of the feet either in hot water or in a concoction of ingredients ranging from various herbs and nuts to less desirable substances such as urine and warm animal blood. This is allegedly to soften the tissue and bones of the foot to facilitate manipulation. After the feet are massaged and doused with alum4 (and please bear in mind that these girls have absolutely no idea what they're in for until the day itself). All the toes on the foot, save for the big one, are broken and folded under the sole, and then the toes are bound in place with a 10'x2" silk or cotton bandage5. These wrappings are removed every two days to allow the washing and meticulous manicuring of the toenails to avoid infection. This is no act of kindness - immediately after this pedicure, the bandages go back on, and tighter. And tighter still. Eventually the arch of the foot is also broken and the foot is pulled straight with the leg. The shoe sizes are also reduced gradually to accommodate the shrinking feet.

To encourage the feet to achieve the desired conformation, the girls may be made to walk long distances so that their own weight crushes their feet into shape. Alternatively artificial force in the form of weights may be applied to hasten the process. Occasionally the flesh of the foot would also be lacerated, or sharp objects may be inserted in the bandage to encourage 'excess' flesh to rot away so that smaller feet may be achieved. The washing and binding is carried out by the mother in earlier years; however as time passes, the girls themselves learn to grit their teeth and tighten their bandages on their own.

At the end of two years of excruciating pain, what you get is a pair of tiny - albeit grotesquely folded - feet. Of course, it doesn't just end there. Because feet will tend to conform to nature and grow, this foot-binding process is carried out for an additional ten years or so to make sure that the toes stay in place.

And you thought that sore feet at the end of a very long day on spike heels was bad.

The Hazards of Having Bound Feet

If spike heels can cause accidents, then what is foot binding capable of?

The hazards of having your feet bound are incredible. The very act of foot binding is against the processes of nature, forcing feet into conformations that by rights should not be possible. Because foot binding impeded blood circulation, many a toe fell off because blood was unable to reach it. Improperly trimmed toenails cutting into the instep of the foot and voluntary laceration with sharp objects often caused infection, the most common of which was gangrene, and more often than not blood and foul-smelling pus would ooze from the wounds. The animal blood-and-herbs potions for soaking the feet caused flesh to fall off. Septicaemia6 and death sometimes followed infection. And even when a woman survived infection, it was not unusual for the foot to practically die after three years, leaving a terrible stench that would follow the woman for the rest of her life. And then of course there was the excruciating pain.

In 1997 a group of scientists from the University of California undertook to study the consequences of bound feet. This research was part of a larger study of osteoporosis in China. A total of 193 Beijing women were selected for the study, 93 of whom were 80 years old and above, and the rest of whom were between the age of 70-79. The scientists found that 80-year-old women with bound feet were more likely to fall than those with unbound feet (38% vs. 19%). They were also less able to rise from chairs without assistance (43% vs. 26%), and were less able to squat, which was important to daily activities in China.

In addition, these women were found to have a 5.1% lower hip bone density and 4.7% lower spine bone density, which made them more susceptible to hip and spine fractures.

Interestingly enough, however, these women did not seem to have problems preparing meals, walking or climbing steps. It is not known if these women had become adjusted to the impairment and pain, or if they were simply reluctant to admit to difficulties.

The Symbolism of Bound Feet

We know that throughout history men and women alike have suffered pain and agony in the name of beauty. The suffocatingly tight corsets so popular in ancient Europe were often responsible for the breaking of ribs, and the tattoos that natives of certain countries sport surely could not have come without pain. And yet none of these could possibly compete with foot binding in terms of duration and agony. The question is - what purpose could it possibly serve, save to disfigure?

Those of us who are familiar with foot binding are aware that bound feet is very much a status thing. Small feet were considered beautiful, elegant and a prerequisite for marriage. Marriage, of course, was important for a woman, since failure to marry was equated to having no life. Even worse, it was believed that without husbands or children to tend to their graves, these women were condemned to spend their afterlife as 'hungry ghosts', roaming the Earth for all eternity. Small feet were also a status symbol. It signified that the families of bound-footed girls were so rich that the daughters need not lift a finger to help. Of course this was very often far from the truth, as lower-class parents bound the feet of their daughters in the hope that they could be married off to gentlemen of higher social classes. More often than not, when such a marriage could not come to be, these girls were forced to resume hard work in the fields, bound feet notwithstanding.

Scholars of the Western world argue that it is painfully clear that having bound feet is the ultimate symbol of submission. Female emancipation was, after all, not a term that belonged in ancient Chinese dictionaries. Women were considered second-rate citizens, undeserving of independence and education, and the woman's role in life was only to be a wife and mother of sons. Although infanticide of baby girls is no longer rampant in modern China, nevertheless baby boys continue to be preferred over girls. If we were to simply take Confucian teaching as exalting the superiority of men, then it would only be natural to view foot binding as an enhancement of this male dominance. A woman who has bound feet is incapable of venturing far without assistance, and is therefore unable to stray or to run from beatings, and is under the control of her husband. A woman with bound feet would have no choice but to be faithful and submissive.

Beverley Jackson, curator of the Chinese collection at the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum, however, believes that Chinese foot binding has more to do with a far more scandalous aspect of human behaviour - sex.

According to Jackson, the bound foot was the very symbol of chastity, as women with bound feet were restricted to their homes. The reasoning was that the bound foot, once formed could not be unlocked like a chastity belt.

Thus the bound foot came to be associated with eroticism and obsession verging on perversion. It is said that when a Celestial takes a woman's foot in his hand, the effect is equivalent to that provoked in a European by an ample bosom. Jackson believes that the gait of a bound-footed woman strengthened the muscles of her sexual organ, and that the nerves in her feet would become more concentrated, thus making them a major erogenous zone. She pointed out that many literary works and pornographic images dating from ancient China portrayed men fondling and becoming excited by women's feet.

However, it should be noted that all this erotic Chinese connoisseurship literature (all of it pornography, really) was written no earlier than the 19th Century. Dorothy Ko, whose research was on the shifting meanings of foot binding in 17th Century China, points out that although erotic fiction dating from the 16th to 18th Centuries did mention fondling of the bound foot in foreplay, they displayed an aesthetic sensitivity that was not reflected in the 19th Century works. Such blatantly vulgar and disrespectful accounts of the erotic attraction men found in the bound foot could not have been written in the heyday of the foot-binding tradition, but could only have come about in its twilight when the cultural aura had faded and the social status of its practitioners had declined.

From the Chinese viewpoint, foot binding was not considered mutilation7 but a form of adornment, an embellishment to the human body. The human body, in Chinese philosophy and medicine was not so much a hunk of meat but instead part of a larger organic process of regeneration. The attire and adornment of both men and women forged a link between the needs of human society and universal order, bringing together the world and the spiritual realm of Heaven.

The bound foot was also a symbol of identity and virtue. A bound foot signified that a woman had achieved womanhood, and served as a mark of her gendered identity. The Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi (1130-1200 AD) promoted foot binding in southern Fujian in an attempt to instill in the natives a sense of propriety and chastity. The very act of concealing the bound foot within a shoe was closely linked to the ideals of civility and culture (wen8), which was the highest value in Chinese culture. Because the Confucian tradition put a great deal of stress in properly covered bodies, correct attire - bound feet included - was the quintessential expression of civility, culture and humanity. Attire not only differentiated the Han Chinese from their inferior neighbours, thus giving them a sense of identity, but also set apart social classes and gender within the Han society. Big, flat naked feet were only fit for animals; women who had class had bound feet.

The need for an identity symbol became great when in 1644 the Emperor committed suicide and the Manchu army stormed through the Ming Dynasty. Suddenly it became crucial for the Han people to have a badge for manhood and loyalty to their nation. The bound foot became a marker of ethnic boundaries that separated the civilized Hans from the barbaric Manchus. It also became an important war strategy. A historical work penned by Shen Defu (1578-1610 AD), a Ming Beijing resident whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were important officials, describes a military affairs expert named Qu Jiusi who proposed that the tradition of foot binding be used to strengthen China's defense against the barbaric Manchus. He suggested that the Han Chinese entice their enemies to become 'civilised' by having their women follow the foot-binding tradition. His reasoning was that this would cause the menfolk to become indulgent and less aggressive, thus becoming less of a threat to the people of China.

It was not known if Qu's plan ever left the drawing board, but foot binding never caught on with the Manchu people, and what was left of the Chinese tradition went down the drain with the revolution of 1911.

The End?

In today's world, money talks, and bound feet are no longer needed to lure good matches. Female emancipation and human rights have rendered foot binding all but obsolete. Today foot binding is but a lingering memory of ancient tradition, a story to be found in a dusty book or museum display, and a romantic half-myth that both fascinates and horrifies modern society.

Or is it? News has it that a San Francisco-based guru recently invented a device called 'Fakir's foot bender', which contorts the metatarsus to create 'a pretty foot'.


  • Cummings, SR and K Stone. 1997. Consequences of foot binding among older women in Beijing, China. American Journal of Public Health Vol. 87(10): 1677-1679.

  • Defu, Shen. 1573-1620. Private gleanings in the reign of Wanli (Wanli yehuo bian). Most probably long out of print.

  • Jackson, B. 1997. Splendid slippers. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.

  • Ko, D. 1994. The body as attire: The shifting meanings of footbinding in seventeenth-century China. Journal of Women's History Vol. 8(4). Paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, March 23-27 1994, Boston.

  • Seagrave, S. 1985. The Soong Dynasty. Harper & Roe, New York.

1Although there are scattered sources that claim the tradition started late in the Tang dynasty, which preceded the Sung dynasty.2A variation of this story tells that the women bound their feet of their own volition to show their sympathy for the Empress. This is somewhat implausible, unless the women were masochists.3This is, of course, all relative. Foot binding will hurt like hell, whether you perform it in summer or winter.4To make the tissues contract and to minimise the possibility of internal capillary bleeding. It was also supposed to alleviate perspiration and prevent the foot from reeking, although it is supposed that it failed in its function there.5The rich used white bandages; in rural areas the bandages were dyed with indigo blue to prevent dust from showing. The dye was also believed to prevent ulceration.6Blood poisoning.7Bodily mutilation was a serious no-no by Confucian standards because the physical body was considered an inheritance from one's parents and thus should not be jeopardised. Several figures in Chinese history have used this argument to denounce foot binding. Indeed the mutilation of inherited body argument was used in the 1640s to attack the haircutting order imposed by the Qing government; interestingly, however, it was not until two centuries later that someone thought to apply the same argument to foot binding.8 Li Wai Yee described in her book Enchantment and disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature the meaning of wen: the sense of culture associated with rites, music, civilized institutions, learning, writing and language. According to the Confucian tradition, wen was considered male, for the mastery of literature and the civil arts were prerogatives of men if they were ever to achieve political power. However, Dorothy Ko believes that foot binding was the female inscription of wen because it 'allowed women to partake bodily in the aura of wen, marked by the dynamics between concealment and ornamentation'.

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