The Practice of Footbinding in China
|Footbinding in China is a topic that has interested, repelled, and perplexed people throughout its history. The practice of binding ones feet in order to achieve a certain length has all but disappeared from modern-day China but it was once the accepted and promoted practice of many Chinese women. How and why the custom began is somewhat of a mystery, but there are many theories as to why women began to bind their feet. The reasons why women began binding their feet is not the only area of interest, why it became so prevalent for women to bind their feet, how and why it became so engraned in Chinese culture and the aftermath of such a practice are studied as well. It was also vital to the history of footbinding that when the West got word of such a practice, they set out to put an end to the tradition they found demeaning and degrading. That is one reason why footbinding slowly faded out of China but not the only one. There was a push against it from within as well. When studying the practice of Chinese footbinding, it is also important to know that some scholars argue that there is much more to the story of bound feet than the broken bones themselves. They say that people often get caught up in the image of crippled feet of barely four inches and do not investigate the history of the practice. This paper, however, will look closely into the origins, development, consequences, and aftermath of the culture of foot binding in China.
The practice of footbinding has a rich and illusive history. This stems from the fact that there was no set way of doing the binding or reason for the beginning of the practice in China. It goes even further when one finds out that there is very little documentation of this practice. To add to that, the little information we have is often subjective. It is also true that much of the written documents that actually exist from the early days of footbinding were actually written by men. The reason there isn’t much written by women is because women held the practice and ceremony as very sacred. Women took their bound feet very seriously and the practice was very secretive, talking or perhaps writing about it was considered taboo for many women. It is also interesting that most of the written things we have about footbinding, mainly from early times is in the form of poetry or fictional prose. This makes it quite difficult to form any large and solid base of information on the topic. As Dorothy Ko put it in her on-line essay, The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth Century China,
There is no neutral or objective knowledge about footbinding. Whatever knowledge we can gain depends on whom we are, who wrote the texts, when, and why. The impossibility of coherent, objective knowledge is compounded by the peculiar history of footbinding. It was neither a uniform practice across regions, nor did it sustain a timeless and essential core of meanings. The unanimity of condemnation in modern times masks the multiplicity of practice and the instability of meaning that is the only salient truth about footbinding (Ko).The history of footbinding is elusive, difficult, and often times disturbing one . Thus, to delve into this topic is a complex yet unbelievably interesting journey to make.
The exact origins of the practice are a mystery, but there are quite a few tales as to why and how it all began. One of the most popular stories about the origin of the practice is a tale of deer girl from India. In this story, a deer gave birth to a very beautiful girl but this girl had the feet of a deer; and her feet only enhanced her beauty. As she gracefully walked, wherever she went, she left impressions of lotus flowers on the ground (Ping 12). Thus, the shoes that women wore to cover their bound feet were called Lotus Shoes. Many years after this tale spread and gained importance, it was believed that an emperor in southern China named Li Yu, was believed to have started binding the feet of his dancers to resemble those of the deer girl. He thought that this would enhance the grace and beauty of his dancers (12).
Another folk tale also had a similar impact on the people of China.
This one hits closer to home with many Western people. It is the
tale of the Chinese Cinderella. This story is much like the Grimm
brothers version except that this Cinderella was Chinese and her name was
Yexian. Her prince chose her because of her perfect tiny feet, much
like that of the Grimm brothers tale. Dorothy Ko, in her book Every
Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet states, “the most important factor
in the development of footbinding was the growth of a Cinderella complex
from the ninth to thirteenth centuries” (Ko 25). This and many other
things that will be discussed later in this paper lead to the spread of
footbinding in China. Once the practice started gaining momentum
and popularity, like many fashions, it just kept growing until women all
over China were binding their feet.
No matter how or why the tradition began, there is no question, no argument to be made about the fact that it swept across China binding the feet of all the women in its path. Long after it came into existence, it began to pick up speed and influence under the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty. Then by the time the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), footbindinghad become the accepted practice for women in China (Ping 32). Just as with the origins of the custom, there are also many other theories as to why it became so popular for Chinese women to bind their feet. The one that seems to attract or convince most people is that of the beauty and sexual elegance of these tiny feet. No matter which tale of the origin of footbinding is taken to be believed, they all relish in the beauty and rarity of small feet. Like with many customs throughout history and around the world, once it became socially acceptable and a symbol for beauty, women everywhere bound their feet. Soon after this, the beauty of bound feet became a symbol for sexuality. It became sexy in some eyes for women to force their feet to be as small as possible. As this was seen as beautiful and sexy, it became what women wanted to be. Some scholars theorize that part of the fetish with bound feet is that the bound foot, when out of its bindings, the most secret and sacred of all things, resembled female genitalia. And to counteract that, the bound foot in its wrappings resembled a man’s penis (Ping 14). The sex appeal of the bound foot is quite possibly the most well known source of the custom of footbinding but it definitely is not the only one. It was much more engrained in society than many people know.
The next step in the progression of footbinding, as it became more and more culturally accepted and admired, was that it became a tool of marriage. Men looked for women with bound feet and thus women more and more increasingly began to bind their feet in order to please their new husband. It is important to point out that because many marriages at this time were arranged, it wasn’t necessarily the man the bound foot was attracting, it was his family. “Footbinding spread from the thirteenth to fifteenth century because it enhanced a daughter’s marriage prospects, as is often said…In fact, future in-laws desired brides with bound feet because it signaled not sexuality but modesty and morality” (Ko 52). This meant mothers and fathers who wanted to marry their daughter off well were encouraged to bind her feet.
Another step in the development of the practice was that this custom became a status symbol for women. In the beginning, it was only the women of the higher classes that could afford to bind their feet. Unlike their poorer counterparts, these women did not have to do hard physical labor and their work was not depended upon to help the family stay afloat. This meant that men of higher classes looked for women with wonderfully bound feet to marry. However, it did not take long for the practice to exceed the limits of class. Because rich families were looking for women with bound feet to marry their sons off to, young girls in lower class families began to bind their feet. This was a great sacrifice for lower class families. Each child a family lost to the binding of feet was considered money taken away from the family because once their feet were bound they were all but crippled and unable to do work in the fields. One girl from Tong’an’s account of her experience with footbinding exemplifies this point, “Father took me to Xianmen once, when I was quite small. I saw girls with tiny feet, in lovely shoes, and I wanted my feet bound to be beautiful like them. I begged Mother to bind me, and she agreed, saying that if I could stand the pain, a rich man might marry me, because I had a pretty face too” (Gates 51). The story goes on to tell of how horrible the pain of binding was and that she wanted to change her mind once her mother started the process but her mother said they had to keep going. It goes even further to explain how the father was furious when he found out his daughter’s feet were bound because she couldn’t work for him anymore and ordered the mother to stop the binding (51). To bind or not bind women's feet was a huge decision for many families to make. It was to some people's advantage to bind their girls feet because if her feet were bound it might have meant that if they could marry their daughter off well, the family might be able to profit from the marriage dowry. This is a very sad but true fact; the woman was objectified to the point where she was all but sold off for the betterment of her family’s financial situation.
The role women played in Chinese society had a lot to do with marriage customs in China and thus with footbinding. It is no secret that China is a patriarchal society. Men for centuries in China dominated not only the country but the women of China as well. For example, it is also theorized that men wanted to marry women with small feet because then it was harder for her to run away from him and his family. I think this says a lot about how women were treated in China. I also think that it is important to state that men in China, never have had to have bound their feet. This was only done to women, women were the ones who had to reach some sort of beauty threshold by doing this to themselves and their daughters.
It is also important when learning of the practice of footbinding to have a good idea of what the women actually went through to achieve this status of beauty and appeal. The practice of the binding itself is quite a gruesome and hard to stomach experience. Usually when a girl was between the ages of five and seven, old enough to know the meaning of the experience but yet young enough for her feet to be easily molded and broken, her feet were bound for the first time. This was a very important step in a woman’s life. As Dorothy Ko depicted it, “The daughter’s first binding took place in the depths of the women’s quarters under the direction of her mother, sometimes assisted by grandmothers and aunts; no men were privy to the ceremonial process. It was a solemn occasion marking the girl’s coming of age, the first step of her decade long grooming to become a bride-a prelude to a sweet-sixteen party” (Ko 54). The tools used to bind the feet were ones that the women used every day and were found around the house. They bound the young girls feet with cloth and used thread to sew her feet in tight. The purpose of this binding was to bend the toes completely under the sole of the foot and then pull the whole front of the foot as close to the heel as possible, creating a “perfect” three inch foot. This experience is graphically detailed byWang Ping in her book Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China:
For about two or three years, little girls go through the inferno of torture: the flesh of her feet, which are tightly bound with layers of bandages day and night, is slowly putrefied, her toes crushed under the soles, and the insteps arched to the degree where the toes and heels meet. Loving mothers suddenly turn into monsters that beat their sobbing girls with sticks or brooms, forcing them to hop around to speed up the rotting flesh and made sure the bones are broken properly. (Ping 3)Having such a vivid picture in one’s head of the torture that these women went through really helps to understand just what it was that these women were willing to sacrifice for cultural acceptance and so called beauty.
Now that the pain of the practice has been explained, it is important to understand that there was much more to the practice than just the rotting flesh and the broken bones. This custom was much more deeply engrained in society than many people know or like to admit. Part of the importance of the ritual were the shoes themselves. The shoes that women created to cover their bound feet were called Lotus Shoes, and they became one of the most important things in their lives. As Dorothy Ko put it, “Shoes thus have special emotional meanings to a woman beyond the marital aspect. We may say that votive shoes are expressions of her religious devotion, and the first binding shoes are a mother’s labor of love. Girls and adult women made shoes as gifts for distant friends and nearby relatives. As a product of a woman’s hand, a pair of lotus shoes is not an inanimate object but the material extension of her body and her medium of communication” (Ko 69). These shoes became a very important part of Chinese culture. Women were often judged by their Lotus Shoes, especially by matchmakers and in-laws. As was explained earlier, acceptance by one’s husband or in-laws was of great importance. The shoes that one made to wear or the ones that were made and given as gifts could greatly improve their status in the family and in society. This was true for many years; that is until things in China began to change.
The years between 1860 and 1900 were a time of great change in China. Outside influence and crumbling from within had forced China into change in many different sectors. Cultural customs were no different. The practice of footbinding soon came under public scrutiny from foreigners. Like many parts of Chinese history, influence from the outside changed the way the practice was seen. The economy was changing with the times and foreign influence had also reached new heights. This practice was just one example of old China and was a custom the west found particularly unappealing. During this time there was a great movement of missionaries into the country and these missionaries also worked to abolish the practice of footbinding. Missionaries and others worked for years to ban the practice and they achieved their goal, the custom was officially banned in China in 1902 (Hong 291). Even though it was officially banned, women did not stop binding their feet. This “liberation” process for the women of China took quite a long time. “Under the Qing dynasty, imperial edicts banning the practice were ineffective and the practice continued. By the close of the nineteenth century, many Chinese and foreign reformers were calling for the eradication of footbinding, yet they encountered considerable resistance” (Bossen 37). It ended quite a bit faster in the cities, especially coastal cities, but in the countryside the practice continued for many years and didn’t really come to and end until the 1950’s. The pain did not stop when the practice did. For women whose feet were already bound, it was quite a bit more painful to let their feet out of their bindings than to leave them in. So once again, if they were forced to let their feet out they were submitted to more and more pain.
The practice of footbinding in China was a very important part of the
culture while it was in style. It has remained historically important
as a guide of beauty and sexuality and an example of what people are willing
to do for beauty or marriage or to be accepted in their own culture.
Even though the origins and reasons behind it are not all that clear, it
is clear that women in China bound their feet and experienced pain the
rest of us cannot imagine, this is no mystery, this is no lie.
Footbinding has left quite a mark on not only the history of China but on the world. When practices like this are brought to light, it forces all cultures and civilizations to look into their own history and question or investigate. Such customary traditions that force beauty on women are or were found in many societies around the world. China is not alone in her quest for the perfect woman. The use of corsets in Europe and even early America, in order for women’s waists to appear as small as possible is one custom that comes to mind. Some women were even known to take out ribs in order to make their waists look smaller. Even in our modern day societies, things like this still exist. Women in particular are singled out to portray this beauty. They must always fit some ideal of what a woman is supposed to be. Although the images and ideals of this perfect woman changes, it is important to keep in mind that woman all over the world are forced or at least pushed by society to strive for some sort of beautiful conception of a woman. Many times this involves pain or hard work. I think it is important to think about the role beauty has played in all societies when discussing the practices of one society, and especially when talking about the practice of footbinding in China.
The practice of footbinding has had quite an impact on the world since
it’s conception and especially since it’s banning. The end of the
practice of binding ones feet started a new practice, the collecting of
the shoes that these women bound their feet with. The Lotus Shoes,
the very three-inch torture chambers that these women stuffed their feet
into have become quite popular collectors pieces. Because we know
so little about the early days of the practice from these women, the shoes
do a lot of the talking for them. It might be true that it is therapeutic
and definitely educational to learn about the practice by seeing the actual
objects that women strove to fit their feet into.
Bossen, Laurel. Chinese Women and Rural Development: Sixty Years of Change in Lu Village, Yunnan. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
Gates, Hill. “Footbinding, handspinning, and the modernization of little girls”. South China: State, Culture, and Social Change during the 20th Century. Ed. L. M. Douw and P. Post. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995.
Hong, Fan. Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom. Portland, OR: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1997.
Ko, Dorothy. Every Step A Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
Ping, Wang. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. Minneapolis,
MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Chinese Footbinding. http://www.sammustafa.com/WorldReadings/footbinding.html
This website is particularly graphic and at the same time interesting. It is a first-hand account of the story of one woman and her bound feet.
Golden Lilies: The tradition of footbinding is tied up in issues
of beauty, marriageability and sex, by Nadine Kam. http://starbulletin.com/98/03/10/features/story1.html
One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity
and Demise by Marie Vento. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/studpages/vento.html
San Tsun Gin Lian by Julie Wise http://www.csuchico.edu/~cheinz/syllabi/asst001/spring99/wise/
The Body As Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century
China by Dorothy Ko. From Journal of Women's History Volume 8, Number 4,