Chinese Foot Binding

Wooden floor boards, smoothed by years of patient polishing. On the table on the far side of the room an artful composition of flowers. You are wearing a stunning kimono and a painted demure smile, the tip of your Lotus shoes peeping from under your silk robe. A single petal floats down and lands on the wood. Fluently you glide towards the velvet white on tiny feet. Ultimate elegance…

… except every single step is killing you. Your toes – or what’s left of them – are curled under your foot soles, the bones fractured and ‘healed’ in a totally unnatural pose so your feet are about 7,5 centimetres = 3 inch: the ideal length for a bound foot in tenth until early twentieth century China. Foot binding. I must warn you about the photographs that will follow. Like the article about the Padaung, the Long-Neck Women, these practises are harsh. In fact they are much much worse.

Where the custom of foot binding originates from is not clear. The first to practise it were the upper class Han families in the wealthiest parts of China. The elite daughters didn’t have to labour in the fields but stayed at home to supervise their husband’s household. They were very limited in their mobility and dependent on their men and family. By the seventeenth century however, foot binding had spread to all classes and women had to work the rice field on their mutilated feet. Over the centuries two billion girls have been abused this way. Though it was possible to walk with bound feet, it was very painful.

I will now describe the way foot binding was done. Please do not read the next paragraph if you are over-sensitive. It made me nauseated, so I summarised the information for you from Wikipedia.

The process began between the age two and five, before the arch of the foot was fully developed. First they soaked each foot in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood, and then massaged it. After clipping the nails as short as possible, the toes were then curled under the sole and pressed until they broke. Toes held tightly against the sole, they next drew the foot down straight with the leg and broke the arch. Tightly wound bandages held all in place, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel ever closer together. The girl then had to stand on her freshly broken and bound feet to crush them into shape. As the bandages dried, they became even tighter. Extreme unimaginable pain, that’s why the foot binding was generally done by an elder family member or a professional foot binder. The feet needed a great deal of care and attention: for the rich the process was repeated daily, including massaging, trimming and breaking again and again if needed!; for the poor twice or three times a week. Infection was a common problem, causing gangrene. Sometimes infection was caused deliberately by adding pieces of glass, so toes fell off entirely.

 

The extremely small feet were considered beautiful and created the Lotus Gait, because women avoided placing weight on the front of their feet and had to bend their knees slightly and sway to be able to walk. Men thought this was intensely erotic… as long as the feet stayed concealed. Too bad the feet had no Lotus fragrance.

In the twentieth century, foot binding was banned…

The reasons for treating your own daughter this way, are beyond me. All for the sake of beauty, while you condemn your child to a lifetime of suffering? Are you out of your freakin’ mind?! And YES, I realise it was tradition and a part of culture, but I just can’t find any justification in torture and mutilation. Ever. I’m so very sorry for the madness these little girls and women had to go through. The human body should not be tampered with for the sake of beauty only. You are great, just the way you are…


38 thoughts on “Chinese Foot Binding

  1. Another reason for footbinding is that it made women incapable of running away for all kinds of injustice.
    High heels is the “light” version of footbinding, that’s a cultural habid, and a trilion dollar industry.

  2. Thank you for stopping by my blog and liking my post. It brought me here to your blog. This is a very interesting article. The torture of these little girls is unimaginable. I always wondered about references to bound feet in books I read but never followed up. I am reminded of the Cinderella story which they say originated in the Orient. Rosemarie

    • Hi there, Rosemarie, and a warm welcome to Figments :)

      Like you I just can’t understand how mothers could do this or let this happen to their own daughters. And thanks for revealing that fact about the Cinderella story, most interesting.

  3. A very interesting article, I saw a documentary once about foot binding but its good to be reminded. I know that all cultures have things that are incomprehensible to outsiders, but oriental culture seems to have a vast amount of appalling strangeness and not as far in its past as it should be.

  4. Thanks for giving me a like because it enabled me to find some of your posts. Sadly, tragically, humans can abuse both self and others e.g. cutting, anorexia, some of which become almost cultural rites of passage – but apparently not as widespread as those you have highlighted, or others like circumcision, male as well as female, in some places. It would seem that the ‘rationale’ comes after the reason for the practice, not before – unconscious destruction is part of us until acknowledged and fought against. It may have to be counter-culture, or counter self-desire, so big an issue we are not yet near to solution, but do what can be done in our own territory – even blogging. Thanks again.

    • When the custom is historically embedded in the culture, it is very hard to change. I do hope that young people grow up to be proud of themselves. No mutilations needed, just accept yourself! And that adults dare to break with tradition and use some good common sense.
      There is already enough pain in the world.
      Thanks so much for commenting, Elspeth.

    • Very interesting, Ruth, thank you so much.
      Quote: She claims that footbinding should not be viewed merely as a function of men’s oppression of women, but rather as a phenomenon of male and female desire deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture.

  5. This is an extremely interesting post. I agree with you 100%, that no family should ever put their children through such torture for any reason … especially vanity. I can’t even stand the thought of wearing spiked heels. I sometimes wonder why women through the centuries have not rebelled against the way they’ve been treated. Even now, in some of the Muslim Nations, I find it hard to fathom that families will (still) kill their daughters for shaming their families for say, getting raped. Being an American, such traditions are barbaric in my mind. Breaking a little girls feet is barbaric, too. Who thinks of these cruel traditions, I wonder?

    • For me, raised in the Netherlands, it is also impossible to understand what drives these people to endure the pain willingly, and to force children into binding their feet. It is inextricably linked with the Chinese culture.
      And about stoning girls to death for – let’s say – talking to a boy or more – it fills me with horror. Who are they to judge someone else?!?!?! Pisses me off enormously.

  6. Small feet were something that was also very coveted in Japan while I was living there not too long ago…foot binding was looked down upon, but buying shoes in three sizes to small and cramming your foot into it wasn’t :P

  7. It still happens, ladies….silently in the throngs of politics and such. A man there will pay any price to still find that bound foot. In case you haven’t read the REAL reason for the feet to be bound, it’s all for 4 reasons…..1) That special foot was used as a tool for sex…Have you seen the crevice between the heal and toes? Need I explain anymore? 2) A woman with bound feet could not walk any distance without help, hence, she was “chained” to never stray and thus, could not wander from her husband 3) it is medically proven that if a woman has to walk with her hips instead of feet, her body shifts….and thus, it tightens certain muscles….you guessed it…the orifice of erotica is different if feet are bound because of how she has to walk 4) Status. A woman who goes through torture is worth having.

    Check out countries in the middle East. There, a woman has to have her erotica removed in order to prove chaste to her husband….NO enjoyment, NO wandering. I wonder what would happen if men had to have their nuts shrunk, sewed and steamed in a bag for 5 years, their toes cut to prevent wandering, and their penises sewed to their butts to prove chaste.

    • Hello Tara,

      Thank you for your reaction and new information.
      It still happens? How on earth is that possible?! No one in his or her right mind would set their daughter through these pains and mutilation these days… one would think.
      I was already aware of reason 2 as you can read in my post. Total dependence on her family.
      In reason 3 you are talking about the Lotus walk right?
      As to the foot as tool for sex, that is only true in some cases. In other cases (relationships) the men didn’t even want to see or smell the foot, because of the almost impossible hygiene.

      A woman who goes through torture is worth having.

      Pardon me? In what sick mind is this true? Are you serious? Very sad what people do for money and lust.
      Circumcision… awful, bestial – no, wrong word: animals will never do this – barbaric. The ultimate deed of mysogyny.

  8. Pingback: Generation M! ~ Misogyny in Media & Culture | Figments of a Dutchess

  9. I read a novel about this. I think it was Snow Flower and Secret Fan. But not sure. It made me nauseated too. Awful, awful, awful.

    When our society gives up the idea of high heels for women, equates beauty, we will also have passed a milestone in my book.

    • And in mine. High heels are torture instruments for back and joints. Too bad you can’t read Dutch, since I’ve touched on this subject in the article Summer Outfits.
      But foot binding is much higher on my scale of awful ‘beauty’ adjustments, since these kids couldn’t chose for themselves :(

  10. I can’t imagine it, especially for poor people whose daughters had to work in the fields. Maybe they thought Lotus Feet would attract a wealthy husband (or “protector”) and prosperity for the girl and her family. So sad!

    • That might have been one of the reasons indeed Marian. Do you know that there are still women alive at this moment, who had their feet bound when they were young? Seems they practised it even longer than the start of the nineteenth century…

    • Alas, or perhaps luckily, I have not seen that documentary Miranda. There are so many ‘mad’ things people do for the sake of perceived beauty, which others just can not understand. But foot binding – mutilating little girls who have no say in the matter – is one of the worst. I’m already thinking about my next post in this series.
      Thanks for reading and commenting dear. And thank you for the compliment! :)

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