WARNING: Some may find the pictures I will have displayed throughout this blog disturbing.
I first became enamored with the Chinese culture when in high school our history teacher assigned us the book Spring Moon, by Bette Bao Lord. It was also in the book that I first learned about foot binding.
Now, I haven’t read this book in over a decade, but I will be reading it again soon, and today I will present to you the ancient ritual of foot binding.
Women in China bound their feet for over a thousand years. There are several stories explaining why the custom began, but no one can say which one is the true reason. One tale, which is documented during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) is of Prince Li Yu (R. 961-975) falling for a concubine, Yao Niang, whose tiny feet made her look like she floated as she danced, and was called the “lily-footed” woman. Women began to bind their feet to emulate in dance and grace the style of the concubine. Another story is that an had a clubbed foot, and in order to make herself appear beautiful and un-deformed, she asked her husband to order foot-binding to be mandatory. Another story is of a sleepwalking empress with fourteen inch long feet. It was decided her sleepwalking was from her large feet and so a surgeon was summoned to cut off part of her feet, making them 3 inches long. She was very pleased and did not sleep walk again, however she was not pleased that all the rest of the women in the palace still had naturally long feet. It was decreed from then on that all women must have small feet.
Foot-binding was more than just a beauty regimen. It was a way of life, and would be very difficult to get rid of. Because it was such a popular ritual in society, men would not marry a woman who did not have her feet bound. Starting among the upper class it trickled down to even the lowest classes as it was then seen as a way to marry into the upper classes. Small feet were so coveted, that fairy tale stories of peasants marrying upper-class because of their tiny feet did come true. A precedent was set, and girls at a very young age would have the painful ordeal of getting their feet bound. Men found the short steps in the gait of woman with bound feet to be erotic, calling it the “lotus gait.” One rumor is that the new way of walking would tighten a woman’s vagina, thus making her grip her husband’s penis during intercourse more tightly. This is because after the feet are bound and you can’t walk part of your lower leg muscles atrophy. When they begin walking again they use the muscles around their hips and buttocks to walk, which builds up those areas.
The foot fetish was extreme. Men liked to do things with the feet, touch them with their unmentionables, kiss them and caress them…The feet were considered to be the most intimate part on a woman’s body, kind of like breasts are today. Her shoes, like a bra or panties…
Have you ever seen an ashtray, pipe, dish, etc… in the shape of or designed with the “lotus shoe?” I recall many of these items in my grandparents home since my grandfather was stationed in China for a time.
Not to mention that crippling the woman did not allow her to participate much in anything having to do with politics. Women were mostly restricted to their homes as their dependency on their families was so strong. If they did venture from the home they had to have an escort help them, since they were so unstable on their feet. Most would be carried or ride in a sedan, for they couldn’t walk for long periods of time.
The Chinese are not the only ones with the painful rituals for beauty and social status. Think of women and corsets, plucking, waxing, dyeing, surgical enhancements, piercings, tattoos, high-heels. And don’t forget the saying, which I have said myself plenty of times when brushing the knots out of my daughters hair, “pain is beauty.”
***Groan*** I will never say it again!
During the 17th century, the Manchu’s tried to abolish the foot-binding practice, but it continued into the 20th century when a real movement began to end the act. In 1911 when the Qing Dynasty came to an end, and the new Republic of China government banned the practice. Some still bound their feet in secret and still live today.
The process of foot-binding was very painful. The mother or grandmother of the girl would be the one to perform the binding between the tender ages of four and seven years old, before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop. Binding would be done in the winter months when feet were prone to be numb from cold, and the pain would be less extreme.
The feet would first be soaked in a warmth concoction of herbs and animal blood or warm water, then rubbed with ointment and massaged. This step would help remove all the dead skin on the foot. The toenails would be clipped before short. Then the four smaller toes on each foot would be broken. While this process was taking place the mother/grandmother would have been soaking 10 foot long bandages in the herbal liquid. She would then take these bandages and wrap them tightly from the broken toes to the heel. This would cause the bottom of the foot the bend concavely. Several accounts reported the breaking of the foot to bend it in half as well. The feet were then forced into 3-inch long “lotus shoes.” The feet were rebound every 2 days. Blood and puss would be washed from the feet. After two years of this, the feet would be about 3-4 inches long which was the desirable length. To keep them this size, the foot-binding would continue for another ten years.
For a woman who worked in the fields or somehow managed to refuse the traditional practice, she was often teased, and almost always looked down on. Names such as “lotus boats” would be referred to her feet. Mothers would refuse for their sons to talk to these girls, because of their non-bound feet.
Foot-binding caused a lot of health problems for women. If the feet were not bound properly, blood circulation would be cut off so badly that toes would die, fall off, the skin would rot, gangrene would start in the foot. Such bad infections could cause the woman to die, and some did. Infections would happen quite a bit from the un-cleanliness of the feet. Because it took so long to bind the feet, most women would along unbind them every two weeks to wash them. In that period of time, quite a bit of bacteria and other things can grow in the folds and creases of the bound foot.
Women with bound feet are not only more likely to fall and break a hip or their back because they are not as balanced on their feet, it is actually proven that they have lower hip bone and back bone ratio than women with unbound feet. Women with bound feet also have difficulty in squatting, which is necessary in numerous daily activities.
I myself, am naturally a clumsy person. I couldn’t imagine if my size 9 foot shrunk to 3 inches! I would not make it more than one or two steps without falling… How about you?
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