The Chinese Culture of Feet-Binding Women

By Marlene, Asia World Media Contributor

It is well known that Chinese culture has a wide array of traditions, some more controversial than others. For outsiders, the culture and traditions of China can be fascinating and intriguing. Many old traditions are still respected in modern times and are considered to be integral to a Chinese identity. Still, there is one tradition that puzzles many people due to the pain and discomfort involved, feet-binding.  Despite the pain endured during this process it remained a part of Chinese tradition for more than 1000 years.

A Chinese Golden Lily Foot, Lai Afong, c1870s

The feet-binding tradition required tightly binding the feet of young girls to prevent their further growth, as well as achieve a particular shape and size. The initial process was not dissimilar to a traditional pedicure where the feet are soaked in hot water and the nails are cut short.  There was also an extensive oil massage to loosen the foot a joint, as often happens in salons.  The steps that followed, however, were definitely divergent from western experience and social norms.  All the girl’s toes, with the exception of the big toe, were broken and turned inward towards the sole of the foot. The aim was to create a triangle shape to reduce the foot in size. The arch of the foot was then bent and folded upon itself. Each foot was tied securely with 2 inch wide silk strips. From then on the girls were made to take extensive strolls with the intent of breaking their arches. The strips were changed every two days during this two year process to prevent infection. Wikipedia notes that infection was at times induced by “shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury” with the intention of provoking the toes to rot and fall off. The removal of the toes, especially those that were pudgy, would allow for a smaller foot. The process was extremely severe, especially for 5-10 years old girls who could not fully grasp the agonizing tradition forced upon them.  The earlier the practice was begun, the smaller the feet would be in adulthood, so girls as early as 2 years old were often initiated into the process.

Three designations established the quality or desirability of the feet.  The determining factor of these was the “size”. Held in the highest ranking was the designation Golden Lotus for feet measuring only three inches. Such girls were considered the ideal of beauty and the most desirable for marriage. Those feet measuring four inches comprised the second category and were called Silver Lotus. Feet measuring five inches or more belonged to the third category, known as Iron Lotus, and considered undesirable.  Among the areas of China that practiced feet-binding, girls with such “big” feet had very slight chances of getting married.  Specially embroidered shoes, known as Lotus Shoes, were made to fit the tiny lotus feet of these Chinese women. Pictures show lotus shoes resembling doll shoes the size of the palm of a person’s hand.

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

There are at least two theories with regard to the development of feet-binding.  It is most commonly agreed upon that the tradition began around the tenth century before the Song Dynasty.  However, Mount Holyoke College, a female seminary, holds in its archives information that dates the practice as far back as 700 AD.  A widely accepted story claiming to explain the origin the of feet-binding is that of Chinese Emperor Li Yu (937-978). It is said he requested his concubine, Yai Niang, to “bind her feet into the shape of a new moon and dance upon her toes”. To satisfy Li Yu, Yai Niang bound her feet and gracefully danced on bounded toes upon a 6 foot golden lotus embellished with ribbons and jewels.  Legend says that her dance so mesmerized the royal court that soon all the royal women wanted to emulate her. Whether a product of Yai Niang’s dance or any one of the other known tales, feet-binding became an established norm in China. The practice spread beyond the aristocracy to the affluent class, so that by the 19th century 100% of wealthy Han women had their feet tied, as well as 40-50% of all the Chinese female population.  Ironically enough, it has never been confirmed if Yai Niang underwent the arduous 2 year process of feet-binding, or if she simply bound her feet, much as ballet dancers do, to perform before the Emperor.

Historically, popular arguments attached to pro-feet-binding have been based on the following three notions:

  • Beauty for the Chinese is equated with smallness.
  • Binding of the feet demands the development of the thigh and buttocks muscles. Women with developed muscles in these areas are associated with giving heightened sexual pleasure to their lovers. Ergo, the best wives would be the ones with the smallest feet.
  • Since feet-binding developed among the aristocracy, the appeal for its practice was its identification with refinement, wealth and belonging to a cultural elite.

A second theory proposed by Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates in their book, Bound Feet, Young Hands (Stanford University Press-2017) offers the argument that feet-binding was an economic tool used to establish a class of sedentary manual workers in rural areas.  Bossen states, “As binding reshaped their feet, mothers disciplined girls to spin, weave, and do other handwork, because many village families depended on selling such goods. When factories eliminated the economic value of handwork, feet binding died out.”

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

Not all the Chinese ascribed to this practice. Non-Han communities such as Manchu women, Mongols, Women of the Eight Banners and Tibetans did not practice feet-binding.  Feet-binding communities, however, had deep roots and its cessation was long in coming.  The practice lingered beyond edicts to cease by Manchu emperors, the evangelization of Christian missionaries and finally, the Communist Party, which claimed the practice went against the country’s economic well-being and the role of women in the work force.

Feet-binding has been outlawed in China several times.  Emperor Kangxi outlawed the practice in 1662, only to withdraw his ban 6 years later due to its inability of being enforced.  Again, in 1911 the Nationalist Revolution banned feet binding, only to face the fact that rural communities continued the practice in secret, as a way to secure marriage for female offspring.  The Chinese Republic of China in 1949 was finally able to s-l-o-w-l-y  end the remaining vestiges of this cultural norm with the closing of the last lotus shoe factory in 1999.  “Bowing down to your lotus feet”  will now forever remain a metaphorical expression, much to relief of contemporary Chinese girls.

Although many modern readers might hold up their hands in outrage at the ancient practice of feet-binding, it would be in order to make a correlation with some of the very painful present-day practices that western women endure to achieve the occidental notion of beauty.  These often require long painful surgeries and even longer and painful recoveries, such as gastric by-pass, i-bands, liposuction, abdominoplasty (tummy tuck), blepharoplasty (eye lid surgery), as well as the popular breast and buttock augmentation.  In the future we might find horrified readers in disbelief that these practices were part of the 21st century acceptable social norms. They might wonder how “on earth” someone would willingly inject toxic substances that deadened the nerves in areas of the face to reduce laugh lines.

The wisest practice of all might be to reserve judgment, for what seems perfectly reasonable according to contemporary social standards, changes with time and fashion.