Foot binding

Foot binding

A Chinese woman showing a "golden lotus" foot, image by Lai Afong, c.1870s
Traditional Chinese 纏足
Simplified Chinese 缠足
Alternative (Min) Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 縛跤
Simplified Chinese 缚跤

Foot binding was 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), then became popular during the Song dynasty and eventually spread to all social classes. Foot binding became popular as a means of displaying status (women from wealthy families, who did not need their feet to work, could afford to have them bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture. Its prevalence and practice however varied in different parts of the country. Feet altered by binding were called lotus feet.

The Manchu Kangxi Emperor tried to ban foot binding in 1664 but failed.[1] In the later part of the 19th century, Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out as a result of anti foot-binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, and a few elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities related to their bound feet.[2]



18th century illustration showing Yao Niang binding her own feet

There are many suggestions for the origin of footbinding.[3] 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 in court 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, who had delicate feet, dancing barefeet over a floor decorated with golden lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and said that "lotus springs from her every step!" (步步生蓮), a reference to the Buddhist legend of Padmavati under whose feet lotus springs forth. This story 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.[4] The general view is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang of the Ten Kingdoms, just before the Song dynasty).[1] Emperor Li Yu created a six-foot tall golden lotus decorated with precious stones and pearls, and asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon, and performed a dance ballet-like on the points of her feet on the lotus.[1][3] Yao Niang's dance was said to be so graceful that others sought to imitate her.[5] The binding of feet was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread.[6]

Spread of practice

Small bound feet were once considered beautiful while large unbound feet were judged crude

The practice of foot binding became popular among the elite during the Song dynasty, and the earliest known references to bound feet appeared in the late eleventh century.[7][8] In the twelfth century, in the earliest extant discourse on the practice of foot binding, Zhang Bangji considered that a bound foot should be arch-shape and small.[9][10] A thirteenth-century writer, Che Ruoshui, complained that "little children not yet four or five years old, who have done nothing wrong, nevertheless are made to suffer unlimited pain to bind [their feet] small. I do not know what use this is".[11][12] Evidence from archaeology indicates that footbinding was practiced among the wives and daughters of officials in the thirteenth century. However, the style of bound feet found in Song Dynasty tombs, where the big toe was bent upwards, appears to be different from the norm of subsequent eras, and the excessive smallness of the feet, the "three-inch golden lotus", may be a later development in the 16th century.[13][14] By the end of the Song dynasty, men would drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself. This louche practice was called "toast to the golden lotus" and lasted until the late Qing dynasty.[3]

The first European to mention footbinding was the Italian missionary Odoric of Pordenone in the fourteen century during the Yuan dynasty,[15] however, no other foreign visitors to Yuan China mentioned the practice, including Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo (who nevertheless noted the dainty walk of Chinese women), perhaps an indication that it was not a widespread or extreme practice at that time.[16] The practice would however become increasingly common among the gentry families, later spreading to the general population.[17]

A lotus shoe for bound feet. The ideal length for a bound foot was 3 Chinese inches (寸), which is around 4 inches (10 cm) in western measurement.

The Manchus issued a number of edicts to ban the practice, first in 1636 when the Manchu leader Hong Taiji declared the founding of the new Qing dynasty, then in 1638, and another in 1664 by the Kangxi Emperor.[18] However, few Han Chinese complied with the edicts and Kangxi eventually abandoned the effort in 1668. By the 19th century, it was estimated that 40-50% of Chinese women had bound feet, and among upper class Han Chinese women, the figure was almost 100%.[2] 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 in some areas; for example, in late 19th century Guangdong, 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 be able to work in the fields, but the eldest daughter would assume to never have the 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 three Chinese inches long (around 4 inches (10 cm) in Western measurement).[19][20] 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 some men.[21]

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 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 in the late twentieth century, though age has since forced the group to retire.[22] 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.[2]

Variations and prevalence

A comparison between a woman with normal feet (left) and a woman with bound feet in 1902

Foot binding was practiced in various forms and its prevalence varied in different regions. A less severe form in Sichuan, called "cucumber foot" (huanggua jiao) due to its slender shape, folded the four toes under but did not distort the heel and taper the ankle.[22][23] Some working women in Jiangsu made a pretense of binding while keeping their feet natural.[24] Not all women were always bound—some women once bound remained bound all through their lives, but some were only briefly bound, and some were bound only until their marriage.[25] Footbinding was most common among women whose work involved domestic crafts and those in urban areas;[24] it was also more common in northern China where it was widely practiced by women of all social classes, but less so in parts of southern China such as Guangdong and Guangxi where it was largely a practice of women in the provincial capitals or among the gentry.[26][27]

The Manchu "flower bowl" or "horse-hoof" shoes designed to imitate bound feet, mid 1880s.

Manchu women, as well as Mongol and Chinese women in the Eight Banners, did not bind their feet, and the most a Manchu woman might do was to wrap the feet tightly to give them a slender appearance.[28] 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" (花盆鞋) or "horse-hoof" shoes (馬蹄鞋) have a platform generally made of wood two to six inches in height and fitted to the middle of the sole, or they have a small central tapered pedestal. Many Han Chinese in the Inner City of Beijing also did not bind their feet, and it was reported in the mid-1800s that around around 50-60% of non-banner women had unbound feet. Bound feet nevertheless became a significant differentiating marker between Han women and Manchu or other banner women.[28]

The Hakka people however were unusual among Han Chinese in not practicing foot binding at all.[29] Most non-Han Chinese people, such as the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans, did not bind their feet, however, some non-Han ethnic groups did. Foot binding was practiced by the Hui Muslims in Gansu Province,[30] the Dungan Muslims, descendants of Hui from northwestern China who fled to central Asia, were also seen practicing foot binding up to 1948.[31] In southern China, in Guangzhou, Scotish scholar James Legge noted a mosque that had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it constituted violating the creation of God.[32]


Opposition to foot binding had been raised by some Chinese writers in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, many of the rebel leaders of the Taiping Rebellion were of Hakka background where their women did not bind their feet, and foot binding was outlawed.[33][34] The rebellion however failed, and Christian missionaries, who had provided education for girls and actively discouraged what they considered a barbaric practice, then played a part in changing elite opinion on footbinding through education, pamphleteering, and lobbying of the Qing court.[24][35] In 1875, 60-70 Christian women in Xiamen attended a meeting presided over by a missionary John MacGowan formed the Natural Foot (tianzu, literally Heavenly Foot) Society.[36] It was then championed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement founded in 1883 and advocated by missionaries including Timothy Richard, who thought that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.[37]

Reform-minded Chinese intellectuals began to consider footbinding to be an aspect of their culture that needed to be eliminated.[38] In the 1883, Kang Youwei founded the Anti-Footbinding Society near Canton to combat the practice, and anti-footbinding societies sprang up across the country, with membership for the movement claimed to reach 300,000.[39] The anti-footbinding movement however stressed pragmatic and patriotic reasons rather than feminist ones, arguing that abolition of footbinding would lead to better health and more efficient labour.[35] Reformers such as Liang Qichao, influenced by Social Darwinism, also argued that it weakened the nation, since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons.[40] At the turn of the 20th century, early feminists, such as Qiu Jin, called for the end of foot-binding.[41][42] In 1902, the Empress Dowager Cixi issued an anti-foot binding edict, but it was soon rescinded.[43]

In 1912, the new Republic of China government banned foot binding (though not actively implemented),[44] and leading intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement saw footbinding as a major symbol of China's backwardness.[45] Local warlords such as Yan Xishan in Shanxi engaged in their own sustained campaign against footbinding with feet inspectors and fines for those who continued with the practice,[44] and regional governments of the later Nanjing regime also enforced the ban.[24] The campaign against footbinding was very successful in some regions; in one province, a 1929 survey showed that while only 2.3% of girls born before 1910 had unbound feet, 95% of those born after were not bound.[46] In a region south of Beijing, Dingxian, where over 99% of women were once bound, no new cases were found among those born after 1919.[47][48] In Taiwan, the practice was also discouraged by the ruling Japanese from the beginning of Japanese rule, and from 1911 to 1915 it was gradually made illegal.[49] The practice however lingered on in some regions in China; in 1928, a census in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet,[22] while in some remote rural areas such as Yunnan Province it continued to be practiced until the 1950s.[50][51] In most parts of China, however, the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949.[46] The practice was also stigmatized in Communist China, and the last vestiges of footbinding was stamped out, with the last new case of footbinding reported in 1957.[52][53] By the 21st century, only a few elderly women in China still have bound feet.[54][55] In 1999, the last shoe factory making lotus shoes, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, closed.[56][57]


A bound foot
A bound foot
A bandaged bound foot
A bandaged bound foot

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.[58]

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 of the foot was 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 sole. The binding was pulled so tightly that the girl could not move her toes at all and the ends of the binding cloth were then sewn so that the girl could not loosen it.

An X-ray of two bound feet
Schema of an x-ray comparison between an unbound and bound foot

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.[38]

Immediately after this agonizing 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.[58]

For most the bound feet eventually became numb. However, once a foot had been crushed and bound, attempting to reverse the process by unbinding is painful,[59] and the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain all over again.[56]

Health issues

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. The necrosis of the flesh would also initially give off a foul odour, and later the smell may come from various microorganisms that colonized the folds.[60]

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. It is thought that as many as 10% of girls may die from gangrene and other infections due to footbinding.[61]

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. Bones in the girls feet would often be deliberately broken again in order to improve the size or the shape of the feet. This was especially the case with the toes, as small toes were especially desirable. 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.[62] Other issues that might arise from foot binding included paralysis and muscular atrophy.[59]

Views and interpretations

A woman with her feet unwrapped

Role of Confucianism

A common argument is that the revival of Confucianism as Neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty resulted in the decline of the status of women, and that in addition to promoting the seclusion of women and the cult of widow chastity, it also contributed to the development of footbinding.[63] According to Robert van Gulik, the prominent Song Confucian scholar Zhu Xi stressed the inferiority of women as well as the need to keep men and women strictly separate.[64] It was claimed by Lin Yutang among others, probably based on an oral tradition, that Zhu Xi also promoted footbinding in Fujian as a way of encouraging chastity among women, that by restricting their movement it would help keep men and women separate.[63] However, historian Patricia Ebrey suggests that this story might be fictitious.[65] Modern Confucian scholars such as Tu Weiming also dispute any causal link between neo-Confucianism and footbinding.[66] It has been noted that Confucian doctrine in fact prohibits mutilation of the body as people should not "injure even the hair and skin of the body received from mother and father". It is however argued that such injunction applies less to women, rather it is meant to emphasize the sacred link between sons and their parents. Furthermore it is argued that Confucianism institutionalized the family system in which women are called upon to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family, a system that fostered such practice.[67] Confucian instructions on the moral behaviour of women would include examples of women who were prepared to die or suffer mutilation to show their commitment to the Confucian ethos.[56]

Dorothy Ko proposed that footbinding may be an expression of the Confucian ideals of civility and culture in the form of correct attire or bodily adornment, and that footbinding was seen as a necessary part of being feminine as well as being civilized. Footbinding was often classified in Chinese encyclopedia as clothing or a form of bodily embellishment rather than mutilation; one from 1591 for example placed footbinding in a section on "Female Adornments" that included hairdos, powders, and ear-piercings. The perception of footbinding as a civilised practice may be evinced in an account from the Ming dynasty that mentioned a proposal to "entice [the barbarians] to civilize their customs" by encouraging footbinding among their womenfolk.[68] Fred Blake also argued that the practice of footbinding was a form of discipline undertaken by women themselves, and perpetuated by women on their daughters, so as to inform their daughters of their role and position in society, and to support and participate in the neo-Confucian way of being civilized.[67]

Erotic appeal

Bound feet were considered by some to be highly appealing

For many, the bound feet were an enhancement to a woman's beauty and made her movement more dainty,[69] and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage. It was also considered intensely erotic by some, and 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. The bound feet were also considered the most intimate part of a woman's body; in erotic art of the Qing to Song periods where the genitalia may be shown, the bound feet were never depicted uncovered.[70]

An erotic effect of the bound feet was 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 had undergone foot-binding would walk in a cautious and unsteady manner.[58] Some men found the smell of the bound feet attractive, and some also apparently believed that bound feet would cause layers of folds to develop in the vagina, and that the thighs would become sensuously heavier and the vagina tighter.[71] The belief that footbinding made women more desirable to men is widely used as an explanation for the spread and persistence of footbinding.[72]

Feminist perspective

Feminists usually view the practice as a form of oppression by the patriarchy. For example, Adrienne Rich in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" used footbinding as an example of male power to confine women physically and prevent their movement, as well as a means of controlling women or robbing them of their children.[73] Andrea Dworkin in Woman Hating regarded footbinding as an oppressive practice that crippled women, restricting them to the inferior status of "sex objects and breeders".[74] It is often seen as a form of violence against women.[75]

It has been argued that a woman with bound feet, due to her limited mobility, limited her ability to take part in politics, social life and the world. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, as she became largely restricted to her home.[76] The ending of the practice is seen as a significant event in the process of female emancipation in China.[77]

Other interpretations

Some scholars such as Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates reject the theories that bound feet in China were considered more beautiful, or that it was a means of male control over women, a sign of class status, or a chance for women to marry well. They argued that foot binding was important in work, and can be seen as a way by mothers to tie their daughters down, train them in handwork and keep them close at hand.[78][79]

It has also been argued that while the practice started out as a fashion, it persisted because it became an expression of Han identity after the Mongols invaded China in 1279 as it was then practiced only by Han women.[11][56] During the Qing Dynasty, attempts were made by the Manchus to ban the practice but failed, and it has been argued the attempts at banning may have in fact led to a spread of the practice among Han Chinese in the 17th and 18th centuries.[80]

In literature, film and television

The bound foot has played a prominent part in many media works, both Chinese and non-Chinese, modern and traditional. These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumors or supposition. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931), 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.[81]

See also


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