Foot binding (also known as "Lotus feet") is the custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth. The practice possibly originated among upper-class court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in Imperial China (10th or 11th century), but spread in the Song Dynasty and eventually became common among all but the lowest of classes. Foot binding became popular as a means of displaying status (women from wealthy families who did not need them to work could afford to have their feet bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture.
The Manchu Emperor Kangxi tried to ban footbinding in 1664 but failed. In the 1800s (19th century), Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out, partly from changing social conditions and partly as a result of anti-foot binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, and some elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities related to their bound feet.
There are many suggestions for the origin of footbinding. One story relates that during the Shang Dynasty, the concubine Daji, who was said to have clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make footbinding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Another story tells of a favorite courtesan of Emperor Xiao Baojuan, Pan Yu'er (潘玉儿) who had delicate feet, dancing bare feet over a platform inlaid with gold and pearls decorated with lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and said that "lotus springs from her every step!" (步步生蓮), a possible reference to the Buddhist legend of Padmavati under whose feet lotus springs forth. This may have given rise to the terms "golden lotus" or "lotus feet" used to describe bound feet, there is however no evidence that Pan Yu'er ever bound her feet. The general consensus is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, just before the Song Dynasty). Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang (窅娘) to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon, and performed a lotus dance ballet-like on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she 'skimmed on top of golden lotus'. This was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread.
The practice of footbinding became popular during the Song Dynasty. By the end of the Song Dynasty, it was customary for men to drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan Dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself. The practice was called "toast to the golden lotus" and lasted until the late Qing Dynasty.
Bound feet became a mark of beauty and was also a prerequisite for finding a husband. It also became an avenue for poorer women to marry into money; for example, in Guangdong in the late 19th century, it was customary to bind the feet of the eldest daughter of a lower-class family who was intended to be brought up as a lady. Her younger sisters would grow up to be bond-servants or domestic slaves and, when old enough, either the concubines of rich men or the wives of laboring men, able to work in the fields alongside them. In contrast, the tiny, narrow feet of the "ladies" were considered beautiful and made a woman's movements more feminine and dainty, and it was assumed these eldest daughters would never need to work. Women, their families, and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about 7 cm (3 inches) long. This pride was reflected in the elegantly embroidered silk slippers and wrappings girls and women wore to cover their feet. Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered erotic to men.
Variation in practice
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Foot binding, however, was practiced in varying forms. Some non-Han ethnic groups practiced loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot. While it was extremely prevalent among the Hui in Gansu Province, the Dungan people, descendants of Hui from northwestern China who fled to central Asia, were also seen practicing foot binding up to 1948. Others, such as the Hakka, did not practice foot binding at all.
In southern China, in Guangzhou the westerner James Legge encountered a mosque which had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it constituted violating the creation of God.
Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet by an edict from the Emperor after the Manchu started their rule of China in 1644. However, few complied with the edict. As its prevalence increased, the Manchus, wanting to emulate the particular gait that bound feet necessitated, invented their own type of shoe that caused them to walk in a similar swaying manner. These "flower bowl" shoes sat on a high platform generally made of wood, or had a small central pedestal. Bound feet became an important differentiating marker between Manchu and Han women.
Many women with bound feet were in fact able to walk and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitation than their non-bound counterparts. In the 19th and early 20th century, dancers with bound feet were very popular, as were circus performers who stood on prancing or running horses. Women with bound feet in one village in Yunnan Province even formed a regional dance troupe to perform for tourists, though age has since forced the group to retire. In other areas, women in their 70s and 80s could be found providing limited assistance to the workers in the rice fields well into the 21st century.
In 1874, 60 Christian women in Xiamen called for an end of the practice and it was championed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including Timothy Richard, who thought that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes. Educated Chinese began to realise that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modern rising world; Social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation, since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons; and feminists attacked the practice because it caused women to suffer. At the turn of the 20th century, well-born women such as Kwan Siew-Wah (known in the West as Brigitte Kwan), a pioneering feminist, advocated for the end of foot-binding.
There were also edicts that attempted to ban foot binding. The Empress Dowager Cixi, a Manchu, issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion in order to appease foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. Foot binding was also outlawed in 1902 by the imperial edicts of the Qing Dynasty. In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, though, like its predecessors, not always successfully. In Taiwan, foot-binding was banned by the Japanese administration in 1915. Additionally, some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. When the Communists took power in 1949, they were able to enforce a strict prohibition on foot-binding, including in isolated areas deep in the countryside where the Nationalist prohibition had been ignored. The ban remains in effect today.
The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 9. Binding usually started during the winter months since the feet were more likely to be numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.
First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Cotton bandages, 3 m long and 5 cm wide (10 ft by 2 in), were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.
The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath.
The girl's broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injury, and the nails carefully and meticulously trimmed. When unbound, the broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl's feet were often beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. The feet were also soaked in a concoction that caused any necrotic flesh to fall off.
Immediately after this pedicure, the girl's broken toes were folded back under and the feet were rebound. The bindings were pulled even tighter each time the girl's feet were rebound. This unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible (for the rich at least once daily, for poor peasants two or three times a week), with fresh bindings. It was generally an elder female member of the girl's family or a professional foot binder who carried out the initial breaking and ongoing binding of the feet. It was considered preferable to have someone other than the mother do it, as she might have been sympathetic to her daughter's pain and less willing to keep the bindings tight.
The most common problem with bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl's toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that the circulation in the feet was faulty, and the circulation to the toes was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal and were likely to gradually worsen and lead to infected toes and rotting flesh.
If the infection in the feet and toes entered the bones, it could cause them to soften, which could result in toes dropping off; although, this was seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were more fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury and introduce infection deliberately. Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from foot-binding, and a surviving girl was more at risk for medical problems as she grew older.
At the beginning of the binding, many of the foot bones would remain broken, often for years. However, as the girl grew older, the bones would begin to heal. Even after the foot bones had healed, they were prone to re-breaking repeatedly, especially when the girl was in her teenage years and her feet were still soft. Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls, since they could not balance securely on their feet, and were less able to rise to their feet from a sitting position.
Reception and appeal
Bound feet were once considered intensely erotic in Chinese culture, and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet. Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny "lotus shoes" and wrappings. Feng Xun is recorded as stating, "If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever"—an indication that men understood that the symbolic erotic fantasy of bound feet did not correspond to its unpleasant physical reality, which was therefore to be kept hidden. The fact that the bound foot was concealed from men's eyes was considered to be sexually appealing. On the other hand, an uncovered foot would also give off a foul odour, as various saprobic microorganisms would colonize the unwashable folds.
For men, the primary erotic effect was a function of the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. Women with such deformed feet avoided placing weight on the front of the foot and tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, women who underwent foot-binding walked in a careful, cautious, and unsteady manner. Additionally a common male fantasy was that the unusual gait tended to strengthen the vaginal muscles.
An attribute of a woman with bound feet was the limitation of her mobility, and therefore, her inability to take part in politics, social life and the world. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, and became an alluring symbol of chastity and male ownership, since a woman was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without an escort or the help of watchful servants.
In literature, film, and television
The bound foot has played a prominent part in many works of literature, both Chinese and non-Chinese, modern and traditional. These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumors or supposition. This is only to be expected when a practice is so emotionally charged. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, the accounts are relatively neutral, implying a respect for Chinese culture and assuming that it is not the role of outsiders to promote reform. Sometimes the accounts seem intended to rouse like-minded Chinese and foreign opinion to abolish the custom, and sometimes the accounts imply condescension or contempt for China.
- Flowers in the Mirror by Ju-Chen Li. Includes chapters set in the "Country of Women," where men bear children and have bound feet.
- Feng Jicai (b. 1942) (translated from the Chinese by David Wakefield), The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994) presents a satirical picture of the movement to abolish the practice, which is seen as part of Chinese culture.
- In the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness Ingrid Bergman portrays British missionary to China Gladys Aylward, who is assigned as a foreigner the task by a local Mandarin to unbind the feet of young women, an unpopular order that the civil government had failed to fulfill.
- Ruthanne Lum McCunn wrote a biographical novel A Thousand Pieces of Gold (later adapted into a film), about Polly Bemis, a Chinese American pioneer woman. It describes her feet being bound, and later unbound when she needed to help her family with farm labour.
- Emily Prager's short story A Visit from the Footbinder, from her collection of short stories of the same name (1982) describes the last few hours of a young Chinese girl's childhood before the professional footbinder arrives to initiate her into the adult woman's life of beauty and pain.
- Lisa Loomer's play The Waiting Room deals with themes of body modification. One of the three main characters is an 18th-century Chinese woman who arrives in a modern hospital waiting room seeking medical help for complications resulting from her bound feet.
- Lensey Namioka's novel Ties that Bind, Ties that Break follows a girl named Ailin in China who refuses to have her feet bound, which comes to affect her future.
- In the 2002 alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt, Widow Kang, one of the prominent female characters in the book, is an example of a typical Chinese upper-class woman whose feet are bound. The hardships of women with bound feet are referenced several times, and on one occasion display of such feet (to the shocked police officers) allows the widow to evade further interrogation.
- Lisa See's 2005 novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about two Chinese girls who are destined to be friends. The novel is based upon the sacrifices women make to be married, and includes the two girls being forced into getting their feet bound. The book was adapted into a 2011 film directed by Wayne Wang.
- Feng Shui is a 2004 Filipino horror movie about an old, cursed bagua mirror haunted by the malevolent soul of a foot-bound Chinese woman. The mirror showers luck and prosperity to its owner, but as an exchange, the foot-bound woman brings death to those who are near her.
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- This article incorporates text from Encyclopædia of religion and ethics, Volume 8, by James Hastings, John Alexander Selbie, Louis Herbert Gray, a publication from 1916 now in the public domain in the United States.
- This article incorporates text from The religions of China: Confucianism and Tâoism described and compared with Christianity, by James Legge, a publication from 1880 now in the public domain in the United States.
- Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
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