Robert Y. ENG

A pair of embroidered shoes designed for bound feet. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

Foot-binding was a custom in which girls’ feet were bound with tight bandages so that they would grow to only about 8 centimeters long. Originally conferring femininity and social status to upper-class women, the practice spread to lower-class women seeking opportunities for upward mobility.

The Chinese custom of foot-binding, which may have originated in the court of a decadent, late-tenth-century emperor who had a fetish for small feet, spread through the country beginning at the end of the eleventh century and was common by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Girls between the ages of five and seven were subjected to the practice, in which their toes and heels were bound with tight bandages—usually by their mother or grandmother—so that their feet ideally would be only about 8 centimeters long. The practice made girls’ feet prone to infection, paralysis, and muscular atrophy.

Foot-binding, originally a mark of femininity and social status for upper-class women, spread to lower-class women, for whom the possession of feet resembling “golden lotuses” represented opportunities for upward mobility in the marriage and service markets.

The making of lotus shoes expressed the skills of female household labor. Despite the dangers posed by foot-binding, the practice did not keep women confined to the inner chambers. Wearing water-resistant outdoor lotus shoes, women worked in the fields, or went to shrines and temples. Foot-binding was simultaneously a symbol of feminine beauty, sexual and social hierarchy, and Confucian morality.

The Manchus, who conquered China in the seventeenth century, tried without success to abolish the practice. Later, one of the goals of the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) was to end foot-binding in the name of women’s equality.

By the early twentieth century Chinese reformers campaigned against foot-binding, condemning it as a source of national weakness and shame. To reformers foot-binding was seen as a symbol of China’s vulnerability to Western imperialism because the practice left a large part of the population able only to hobble. Natural feet thus became a sign of feminine beauty. By the 1920s—due to the anti-foot-binding efforts of Chinese natural-foot societies and Western women and Christian missionaries living in China, combined with criticism by May Fourth intellectuals (who favored adoption of Western science and philosophy to strengthen China), and with the practice of rewarding citizens who turned in women’s binding cloths and lotus shoes—laws were enacted that eventually ended the nine hundred-year-old custom.

Further Reading

Ko, Dorothy. (2001). Every step a lotus: Shoes for bound feet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ko, Dorothy. (2005). Cinderella’s sisters: A revisionist history of footbinding. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Levy, H. (1967). Chinese footbinding: The history of a curious erotic custom. New York: Bell.

Wang Ping. (2000). Aching for beauty: Footbinding in China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Source: Eng, Robert Y.. (2009). Foot-binding. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 846–847. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The euphemistic term for bound feet—“golden lilies”—suggested nothing of the ailments that resulted from binding: infection, paralysis, and muscular atrophy.

Foot-binding (Gu?ji?o ??)|Gu?ji?o ?? (Foot-binding)

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