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Chinese Footbinding

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 2

Runaround Soo

China has given the world beauty in its arts, philosophical teachings, and wondrous technology.  It was the most advanced culture of the Old World.  Yet this society, capable of such great achievements, crippled its women in the name of Beauty.  This is the institutionalized maiming known as Chinese footbinding.

X-ray of "bound" feet (1923)

Women have been subjected to many tortures constraining their sexuality.  Currently, the practice of “female circumcision” in Islamic cultures is the most horrendous evil ever visited upon womankind.  The term “circumcision” seems innocuous but, as executed, it is genital butchery.  The clitoris is most often removed or otherwise so mutilated it is rendered useless as an organ for sexual pleasure.  Secondarily, many add further injury by sewing the labia and vaginal opening closed, leaving enough space for urination and menstruation.  It is the new husband’s job to later rip out these chastity-ensuring stitches.  The practice, done when girls are young, is traumatic, and the global community has done much to decry and discourage it.  However, it still, unfortunately, persists.

Other methods of reigning in the womenfolk are known as well.  Women obviously could not be

Chastity belts
trusted to tend to their own reproductive and sexual functions; men had to do that for them.   Hence, chastity belts (introduced in the chivalric period of the 13th Century and made of iron with small openings for excretory functions) were used on women.  The iron device girded a woman’s loins with a locking mechanism; her male protector (whether husband or paramour) had the key.  This presumably kept unwelcome men away from another man’s woman (specifically, her vagina) in the key-holder’s absence. 

Corsets are also restrictive devices.  The “beauty” aspect was to force the already-natural curves of a woman’s body (smaller waist with slightly wider hips) into a more idealized, almost ludicrous, version of the “hourglass” figure.  The waspish waist was so desirable that women themselves even fell into the trap of sustaining the corseting practice – social murmurings of ridicule for a “thick waist” were so pervasive some women had ribs

removed so they could be corseted even more tightly.  The device restricted movement and proper breathing; the old Victorian literary device of heroines “fainting dead away” was actually quite common.  The corset compressed a woman’s internal organs, creating pressure on her lungs, and she simply could not draw proper breath.  The beautiful pieces of antique furniture known as “fainting couches” were once very utilitarian – women had a convenient low divan upon which to slump unconscious when the heat and breathlessness caused them to faint.  Corseting, however stupid, was a relatively harmless constraint and in the mid 1920s it disappeared from the landscape.  Now it is a device used by fetishists and bondage connoisseurs for sexual arousal and role-playing.   

Other sexual restraints for women were not so relatively harmless, or silly, as the chastity belt and corset, however.  Westerners historically were exposed to the dainty, mincing steps of the Chinese woman from visiting China or from old movies.  Early travelers remarked upon the sprightly tiny steps taken by Chinese women when walking.  This mincing walk later became a Western caricature of Chinese femininity.  In cartoons of the 1930s up to the late 1960s Chinese women were stereotyped as the shy, retiring subservient with the daintiness of the footbound woman walking behind her noble husband, her superior. People never gave any thought, however, to the pain these women suffered in the simple act of walking. 

The origins of footbinding are murky.  There is a tale, however, traditionally accepted as the source of this crippling practice (which handicapped women for centuries).

Li Yu was a king of the Southern Tang Dynasty in Nanjiing (thus dating the story from between 937-975 AD).  A traditional entertainment of the Chinese court celebrated the Moon.  One of the theatrical movements involved dancing en pointe in the way of modern ballerinas.  A favored concubine of Li Yu’s, Yao Niang, performed on a platform shaped as a lotus.  The accolade “Golden Lily” (which refers to the bound feet) likely originated from her dance.  Court dancers generally achieved height and dramatic effect by dancing on the tiptoes or, briefly, rising up on the very tips of their toes.  Yao Niang, legend says, took the illusion further.  To enhance and prolong her en pointe performance of the dance (and thus insuring favorable notice from the king) she bound her feet in cloth (loosely) to create, in effect, a ballerina’s slipper.  She then performed her interpretative dance, maintaining pirouettes aided by her bound feet.  Li Yu apparently was enchanted by this.  Other dancers soon emulated her.  And, as with almost all cultural changes and fads, the whims of the ruling class were adopted by the wealthier castes, transforming into the desires of the lower classes, and the practice became a cultural norm.

[Face powder similarly developed in China as a cosmetic appliance.  The well-bred Chinese woman, with her bound feet, rarely saw the light of day.  Walking was too painful.  Her pale skin, therefore, became a desirable and even envious beauty feature, and was a clear sign of her status as a woman of leisure.  Peasant women, working in paddies, had very dark skin – a powdered substance was created and applied to the face, mimicking the pale skin of the upper crust.  The extremes of this, especially in the age of Queen Elizabeth I, found these cosmetics incorporating white lead and other heavy metals.  The British monarch’s skin, although suitably “white”, was the channel by which she got lead poisoning and her teeth turned black by her beauty preparations].

Many elements of the footbinding origin story are apocryphal.  What is known historically, however, is there is no evidence of the practice’s popularity before the Sung Dynasty (960-1279).

High caste Chinese woman (1911)
 At its peak, about 50% of all Chinese women had their feet bound to varying degrees of smallness toward an ideal.  Evidence supports footbinding was first embraced by the élite and only in the wealthiest parts of China.  This suggests footbinding of higher-status girls represented their freedom from manual labor.  It also, by extension, enhanced the husband’s status as well, since it was seen publicly he could afford a wife who did not need to work, whose sole existence was serving her husband and directing household servants while performing no manual labor herself.  The attractions of these women of leisure easily translated into sexual desirability among the wealthy.

The feet of the court dancer, Yao Niang (it should be pointed out), were merely wrapped loosely, and her bindings removed after her dance.  She was not impaired or disfigured by her actions.  As in many fashions, however, extremes developed.  The standard of beauty demanded smaller and smaller feet [in Western culture a milder, but similar, mind-set exists: the woman with the size-5 foot is perceived as more feminine somehow than the woman with the size-11 gunboats, although this prejudice is not as pervasive as it once was].

To achieve the “lily foot”, the feet of very young girls were bound (sometimes beginning in infancy)

bindings on foot (1900)
generally before the foot’s arch developed fully, usually between the ages of 2 and 5.  By design, footbinding stunted and restricted further foot growth, and reshaped the foot, transforming it.  This is not a quick process; it takes roughly two years before the foot is “finished”. 

Footbinding occurred with no pain relief other than what Nature provided.  It was done mostly in winter time so the feet would be numb from cold.  A girl’s feet were washed and her toenails trimmed as far back into the quick as possible (growing toenails would embed in the skin of the sole causing infection, a common problem).  The four smaller toes were bent under and forced against the pad of the foot, then pressed with great force downward and squeezed into the sole until the toes broke.  This left only the big toe in its natural place.  The broken toes were pressed tightly against the insole.  Then the foot was hyper-extended (drawn down straight with the leg), and its arch forcibly broken.

Cotton bindings (about ten feet long and  two inches wide) were soaked in a mixture of warm animal blood and herbs (intended to soften the foot and aid the binding).  Then the bandage was wrapped around the foot, in a figure-eight pattern, encasing it.  At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel ever closer together, causing

unwrapped left "lily" foot (1900)
the broken foot to fold at the arch, pressing the toes underneath.  With the binding done, the end of the cloth was sewn tightly to keep the girl from loosening it.  As the wet bandages dried, they constricted, making the binding even tighter, drawing the heel toward the front of the foot, modifying it into a grotesque, flesh-and-bone version of a high-heeled shoe or small boot. 

However painful the bound foot of the initiate was, the women in her family, already having gone through the process themselves, forced the girl to walk several times per day to further crush her feet into shape. Regularly, the feet were unwrapped and cleansed to fight infection (the toenails would take some time to stop growing; meanwhile infection from growing nails cutting into the foot’s skin could be a problem).  New, ever tighter bandages were applied over many months until the foot was restricted enough that the desired size was reached.  This was permanent as the broken bones fused into position upon healing.

A brief first-hand account from a Chinese woman who had bound feet might help to understand the suffering endured:

When I was seven my mother…washed and placed alum on my feet and cut my toenails.  She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten feet long and two inches wide doing the right foot first and then the left.  She...ordered me to walk but when I did the pain proved unbearable.  That night...my feet felt on fire and I couldn't sleep; Mother struck me for crying.  On the following days I tried to hide but was forced to walk on my feet...after several months all toes but the big one were pressed against the inner surface...Mother would remove the bindings and wipe the blood and pus which dripped from my feet.  She told me that only with removal of the flesh could my feet become slender...every two weeks I changed to new shoes.  Each new pair was one- to two-tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one...In summer my feet smelled offensively because of pus and blood; in winter my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation...Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars...it took two years to achieve the three-inch model...My shanks were thin, my feet became humped, ugly and odoriferous.

Terms were coined for women’s feet based on their sizes: the "Lotus” (the most desirable, roughly 3” long), the “Lily”, the “Half-Moon”, etc., ranging all the way up to the undesirable "Monkey Foot" (what the ordinary, barefooted, unbound peasant woman working the fields carried on the end of her legs).

A woman having gone though this process developed a swaying, wobbly walk as if into a stiff wind (leaning slightly forward).  The footbound woman’s walk was believed to strengthen the vagina and make it narrower.  The strain on the calves and buttocks muscles produced the same swelling effect as high-heeled shoes do today – her calf and thigh muscles unnaturally tighten, and her pelvis shifts slightly off her natural center of gravity causing her buttocks to ride higher and more prominently.  The nerves of smaller feet were also thought to be more concentrated; this made the bound foot a major erogenous zone (at least, in theory).

As with all things denied, fetishism was next for the footbinding nation.  In any era where some body part is verboten it almost immediately becomes an object of sexual desire.  Think of the well-turned Victorian ankle – this might be the only part of a woman’s body a Victorian man might be fortunate enough glimpse.  Thus, the ankle became fetishized.  In Western culture female breasts are fetishized and adored as sexual objects of desire because of all the prohibitions against their open display.  In those African countries, for example, where women are routinely bare-breasted no one notices; the breast does not carry the fetish weight in those cultures as it does in the West. 

So, too, the small female bound foot became a sexual object and a fetish image.  Instances were recorded of women leaving their shoes outside their doors at night only to find them dripping with semen the next morning; men often masturbated into the shoe of a desired woman, leaving the “gift” for discovery.  Poetry and writings from this period express a perverse obsession for small feet.  A “Kama Sutra” of the bound foot was created that expressly listed a few dozen different techniques for fondling a woman’s foot.  There are a large number of period pornographic paintings and engravings of men shown fondling women's feet. 

Fetishes are difficult to understand but this one was national.  Men were so attracted to the small, maimed, crippled, distorted foot that often merely looking at a girl’s foot (encased in its little silk slipper) was enough for complete sexual arousal.  This is hard to imagine, but perhaps not any stranger than any Western man’s sexual excitement when ogling a five-pound lump of fatty tissue with a nipple on it.  Chinese men found it exciting to watch the bound feet; holding one in their hands seemed to surpass any other pleasure.  In the mind of the average Chinese male, far from deforming a woman, footbinding was thought to greatly improve her figure, giving her a smaller waist and fuller bust line.

In the society of the time a woman kept her

unwrapped "lotus foot" (1916)
 bound feet from public display as zealously as she would her inner labia.  Only a woman’s lawful husband was supposed to see his wife’s foot unbound, and the tiny foot was cherished as a sign of privilege to behold. The reality, however, is the foot itself was rarely desired unbound – it was not attractive, and men found the “idea” of what lay beneath the bandages far more arousing than the reality. 

Revisionists like to pretend this practice was informed by standards of beauty.  Although perhaps true in its less extreme, earlier faddish phase, it was later subverted into a repressive tool.  One can argue about what is “beauty” for the ages: certain tribes use scarifications, body tattooing, lip and face plugs; all are “beauty” norms for those cultures.  Footbinding, however, unlike scarifications or simple tattooing (done in equal measure to both genders where practiced) adversely affected a woman’s life (no man has ever been footbound).  It caused her great pain.  It restricted her mobility.  The upper classes could afford servants to carry them in sedan chairs; the lesser-class woman had to use a walking stick (or sticks) and could not walk very far before succumbing to fatigue and foot pain. 

This practice insured that Chinese women were almost cloistered.  They couldn’t “run around”.  If a man was to engage a woman romantically he had to go to her.  She could not stray.  This is a great benefit to any man who is using his material wealth to raise children – he has some degree of assurance the children are indeed his.  Similarly, unable to move briskly, when in the company of men, women by default lagged behind, thus enforcing their inferior position in the society. All she could do was hobble along after her mate.

The revolution which overthrew the Q’ing Dynasty in 1911 was the first step toward ending the practice.  Though illegal, the practice still continued and violations of the law were not enforceable.  The equivalent of tax men inspected villages for evidence of footbinding activities.  If uncovered, the subject was fined.  More often than not, the women who wanted their feet bound (and were in the process) simply filled out regular sized shoes with rags, stuck their bound foot in that, and fooled the inspector.

In 1949 the practice truly was quashed.  When Communists raged across the countryside suppressing signs of imperialist Chinese culture one of their targets were footbound women. The Communists, not caring about the women so much as removing the embarrassing vestiges of bourgeois culture, suppressed the practice with a vengeance.  They were extremely effective in getting their message across.  As was done by the Japanese (part of a Japanese incursion in the late 1930s when over 100,000 Chinese were killed, and thousands of Chinese women raped and murdered) many women were tied up with their feet off the ground, strings with weights tied to

exposed "lily" foot
their atrophied smaller toes, pulling the necrosed appendages off. 

Today there are many elderly Chinese women (in their 70s and 80s) whose feet were bound before the suppression in the late 1940s.  Oddly, one of their problems (other than chronic pain, crippling osteoporosis, etc.) is finding shoes.  The last Chinese shoe manufacturer of the peculiar “lotus slipper” cannot justify continued production, and this year (2011) decided to stop producing them (there are not enough customers left). The maker plans to donate its existing stock to museums and other cultural learning centers as the shoes are too small and odd-shaped to even be used for toddlers. 

Vestiges of footbinding are found in women’s footwear today: the extremes of high-heels, stilettos, and other bizarre women’s shoes force a woman’s foot into unnatural positions in the name of sex appeal. 

Lotus slippers & high heels

What originally started as an upper-class Chinese fad for small feet grew into a fetish and then later had the added bonus of subjugating Chinese women, controlling their sexuality by restricting their movements.  The institutionalized crippling of footbinding as a way of controlling female sexual freedom was effective (as is “female circumcision" -- a woman who has been ritually “circumcised” has no sexual arousal mechanism).  The major difference, though, is the footbound Chinese woman, while maybe she could not run to her lover, could at least enjoy herself after she hobbled to him. 




Nov 7, 2011 6:14am
Great well written article. It sure was a cruel process. I bet a man could not have stood the pain of having this done to them. Not that I blame anyone, I wouldn't have either.
Nov 7, 2011 5:16pm
No one should ever have had to go through this for the sake of some ridiculous societal standard of "beauty". But we puny humans have been mutilating ourselves for millenia and still do it (the female "circumcison" is the more disturbing and still continues).

Thanks for reading (and you're right, if any guy had to go through this it would've NEVER caught on -- I get whiny when my cowboy boots start pinching my feet after wearing them for 12 hours!!)
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