Foot Binding In China

Foot binding originated in China during the reign of Emperor Yi Lu when one of his concubines with bound feet in the shape of a crescent moon danced for him on the points of her feet wearing lotus shoes. He was so enamored with her that she became his favorite concubine. The other women in his harem decided to follow suit, and the custom of foot binding was born (Foreman 1). The practice continued for dynasties to come and remained until the 1900’s (Lim 1). Eventually, the painful practice became a way to distinguish the rich from the poor since the process was expensive, as well as a way to please men.

Chinese girls underwent the painful self-mutilation of foot binding in order to achieve future desirability to men for marriage and social status because Chinese society only provided limited avenues for women to attain either. The goal of foot binding was to achieve the illusion of overcoming gravity. Bound feet symbolized that a woman’s feet have never touched the dirt, and binding was used to make a woman’s appearance tall and straight, as if overcoming gravity (Wang 9). Foot binding shaped the feet into the bud of a lotus flower, and the shoes worn were richly decorated with lotus flowers.

The lotus shoes were three inches long (Lim 3). The lotus flower was a religious symbol for Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddha saw humanity in the form of a lotus flower, and the top level of heaven was thought to have Buddha sitting upon a lotus flower (Jackson 35). However, using foot binding to become as beautiful as the lotus flower did not compensate for the difficulties and agony involved in the procedure. The foot binding process was painful. The ideal age for binding was five or six (“Bound” 2), when the bones were easy to break.

The procedure began when the foot binders soaked the girl’s feet in warm water mixed with herbs that allowed the skin to soften. Occasionally, a binder would use monkey-bone broth, which softened the skin but also began to soften the girl’s bones, leading to decomposition, which added to the pain (Jackson 32). The toenails were clipped short. Next the feet were dried and binders would break the four smaller toes and wrapped cotton bandages around the foot and pulled each digit under the sole. The bandage was then placed against the instep.

From there, the binders wrapped the toes repeatedly to hold them against the sole. The binder then pulled the bandage around the hallux and downward to surround the instep. The wrapping went up around the ankle, back to the instep, and around the heel. In total, the bandage was wrapped around the heel three times and foot twice. (Jackson 34). When completed, this painful process gave the girl’s foot the shape of a crescent moon. In order to make sure the crescent moon shape held tightly, the binders soaked the bandages in hot water before binding them on a girl’s feet.

To ensure that the bandages stayed secure, the binders sewed the bandages very tightly. This procedure also helped keep the girls from loosening their bandages. To speed up the process of achieving the foot’s ideal crescent moon shape, binders put glass and other sharp-edged materials into the binding to help the skin decay. After the binding was complete, the bandages were sewn, and the sharp objects were inserted, the girl was forced to walk around on the newly shaped feet (Jackson 35). Foot binding was not only painful as it was happening but also in future years as the foot grew.

While the binding itself was painful, the long-term effects were just as damaging. Painful infections were a common problem due to the toes being folded into the sole of the foot. The toenails grew into the foot and caused flesh to rot (Jackson 33). Bound feet also caused a lack of balance, a consequence, which was prominent in old women. Even after the ideal foot shape was achieved, the bandages were still needed to support the foot (“Bound” 1). Lack of ability to balance made women susceptible to bad falls that often led to painful hip injuries.

Older women with bound feet had disabilities due to their physical deformities. Their physical impediments made them more susceptible to falling, not being able to squat, and having a harder time getting up from chairs. Women’s bound feet did not allow the performance of physical actions such as baring heavy weight, which created a lower neck bone density (Cummings 3). Yet, women were willing to endure all of this discomfort in order to advance on the social hierarchy. Women who bound their feet achieved a higher social status than those who did not.

If a girl did not have bound feet, she was said to resemble a man, was called names, and brought shame to her parents (Jackson 18). Bound feet not only allowed women to enjoy a higher social rank, but also kept them from having to do manual labor. Women who had big feet were women subjected to do rough work. Not many women could afford to have their feet bound, and those who did have their feet bound could no longer help the family and do work (“Beauty’s Sake”3). If a woman with unbound feet was unwilling to do the rough work of the household that she was entitled to do, then she was considered lazy (Jackson 20).

Even if a woman did the same actions as women with bound feet did, such as ride in a sedan chair and have maids, she was still not distinguished from the workers and poor women who also had unbound feet (Jackson 21). Binding was so expensive that bound feet symbolized a woman was from a good and wealthy family which also indicated elevated social status. With an elevated social status came an aura of reputability. For example, bound feet turned walking into a smooth and quiet sway, and the sway became a sign of respectability. (Jackson 19).

As foot binding spread through the upper classes, it became more and more common for mothers to bind their daughter’s feet (“Bound” 2). If a girl had big feet she was said to have no endurance and temperance (Wang 19). However, these qualities were not desirable for most women; physical attractiveness was. Men in China found women with small feet to be pleasing. Men liked that the binding made women weak and kept them out of power (Jackson 15). Binding made the feet and tendons so sore that it kept women from traveling far outside the house (Lim 1).

The craze originally started with men of upper classes that preferred small feet and paid a large amount of money for women with bound feet. It was a mother’s goal for her daughter to have a marriage to successful man, thus mothers took it upon themselves to ensure that their daughter’s feet were bound (“Beauty’s Sake” 2). Parents would pay a larger marriage dowry for a bride with bound feet because the parents were covetous (Jackson 21). Coincidentally, families would bind the daughter’s feet for the possibility of achieving a higher marriage dowry to profit from (“Beauty’s Sake” 3).

At the expense of a woman’s helplessness, the family status of her husband was elevated because it showed that a lot of money had been paid (Jackson 15). This contributed to the spread of the practice greatly. Foot binding was significant to Chinese culture. In fact, foot binding had become such a significant part of Chinese culture that the practice was not banned until 1912. Even after the reform, foot binding continued to be practiced in secret (“Beauty” 1). Binding became a way of life, a path that ensured a good future. Foot binding stands for an example of the erotic things women do to be considered beautiful and accepted in society.