Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Ancient Ritual of Footbinding

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?


Emma said...

Like you, I have long been interested in Chinese history and, so, was aware of the practice of foot binding. It wasn't 'till I a saw a shoe, as part of a costume exhibit in New York, that the reality of the practice hit home. Then, one day, I was crossing the street in New York and realized the woman next to me had bound feet. I was so shocked by the appearance that I can still see that lady clearly in my memory even though I saw her for no more than a few seconds on the street. I am so glad you included photos and x-rays. I don't think people can understand how crippling this practice was unless they see it. When the Communists came in, they not only banned foot binding but tried to unbind the feet of young women so their feet would grow normally. It didn't work. All they did was cause those poor young women even more pain. Of all the crazy things I've seen people do for the sake of beauty, this is close to the top of my list for totally insane.

Anne Carrole said...

My tall, thirteen-year-old daughter wears a size 10 shoe and I'm always teasing her that we'll have to bind her feet to keep them from growing any larger. No more teasing after seeing these pictures!

Shannon Robinson said...

Wow Eliza - I couldn't imagine doing that to my feet. One of the other reasons I'm glad I'm an American. Jeez...strange customs some cultures have. I'm glad those women don't have to suffer that anymore.
Thanks for sharing!

Eliza Knight said...


I must say I'm surprised, yet gain not, that you saw someone on the street with bound feet. Was she older, like maybe one of the ones left from the early 1900's, or was she younger? The custom was so ingrained in the culture, I honestly would not be surprised to find out that people are still doing it.

I heard about them trying to unbind the feet, it really was a horrible and crippling practice.

Eliza Knight said...

LOL, Anne isn't it funny how we say these things until looking at a picture you realize, um yeah I'm done teasing now :)

Eliza Knight said...


I know it's crazy! But some Americans get a little crazy too! I remember my neighbor stuck in her house for a couple of weeks I would see her occasionally all bruised, battered looking and bandaged up. Finally I spoke to her when she was out about in her yard. She'd had a boob job and a tummy tuck, and she said it hurt like hell...so we still do some crazy and painful things...albeit the footbinding is WAYAYAYAY more extreme and crippling for life!

JK North said...

Isn't that awful!
The story I heard was that a Princess was born with deformed feet. So all of the other women started binding their own in order to be beautiful like her.

Emma said...

The lady I saw was much older than me and this would have been in the mid to late 70's. I assume she would have been a child during the time reign of the last emperor. This is the only time I ever saw someone with bound feet.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for your comments Kasey!That was one of the stories I had heard as well, however there was documentation previous to that time period that it had been happening. I'm just glad I didn't live during that time period.

Eliza Knight said...


That is what I thought, but I'd be curious to know if people are still doing it secretly. Something that is that ingrained into their culture and history is bound to still be happening in some parts... What do you think?

Emma said...

I don't think so. New York has a very large population of Chinese Americans and I worked in lower Manhattan at the time so I was always near Chinatown. I also spent a lot of time in the shops and restaurants and we had a branch office in Chinatown so I was in that area a lot. One of the older gentlemen I worked with had a brother who fought with Sun Yat Sen and I met a lot of older people, many of whom would have grown up in China prior to 1949. I have never seen anything to suggest the practice continues or that anyone would want it to. The same is true here in Seattle. There's a large Chinese community which includes people who would have grown up in China but I see nothing to suggest anyone would think of continuing this practice. I don't think it would be possible in Communist China. But, you never know...

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for the info Molly! I have to say I'm relieved that you don't think its still going on, especially for you having known many people and been involved in the community.

It was definitely a crippling practice for not only women's bodies but their minds too.

Briana said...

I recently read a book, can't for the life of me remember what it's called, but it had the story of footbinding woven through it. It detailed the story of a little girl getting her feet bound by her grandmother, because she wanted her granddaughter to make an advantageous marriage. It followed her as she grew up, got that "good" marriage and how it in effect ruined her life. The practice was extremely painful, but we do similar things for beauty. Maybe not as extreme, but can any woman, honestly say that high heels are comfortable, that tummy tucks and boob jobs are pleasant. We used to strap our daughters into corsets, deforming their ribcages and causing them to faint due to lack of oxygen. Oh the things we do for beauty. I will happily say that I have big feet, small boobs, a big waist, I never wear heels and I rarely wear makeup. My husband and I have been married for 7 years and he likes me just the way I am. I plan to pass this on to my daughter, because beauty should not be pain.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you for your comment Briana! I agree with you whole-heartedly!

Funny story...I rarely wear makeup or dress in much other than jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops, hair in a pony-tail. One day, my husband came home and was totally floored! He told me I was all dolled up... Yeah, still wearing jeans and flip-flops, but a nicer short sleeve shirt, and hair down... I don't even need all the pomp etc... I try to teach my girls the same thing, because beauty shines from within.

That being said, I do still like to get all dressed up and makeuped up sometimes :)


Amalia said...

a few women have commented that modern north american beauty practices are not as "extreme" as foot binding. I disagree. considering the dangers of surgery, complications that can arise,the danger of anesthesia, how can you say that foot binding was more extreme? breaking the bones in your feet is more extreme than vacuuming the fat out of your body with a sharp tube? or slicing open your breasts to insert implants which can get seriously infected and cause huge scars? I think any beauty ritual that causes permanent effects/damage to the body is extreme, and plastic surgery isn't any less "extreme" or more civilized than foot binding.