Foot-binding: An Old Chinese Custom

Foot-binding was an old Chinese custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth. In feudal China, the bound foot was an object of great erotic appeal for men, and even women were proud of their small feet and deemed them as their most important assets. People of later generations use “golden lotus” or “golden lilies” to describe women’s small bound feet. Foot-binding is a kind of the living fossil which truly and simply performs women’s life style thousand years ago.

Foot-Binding (1)

Foot-binding began in the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975) as an outgrowth of the practice of wrapping the feet of dancers with ribbons to look sexy. But, the practice of foot-binding did not become popular until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when women’s status further deteriorated under the influence of the feudal ethics advocated by the Neo-Confucian thinkers. Women became men’s playthings and property, and one of their roles in life was to please men. With bound feet, a woman could walk “like a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze”.

When a wealthy family chose a wife for the son, they also cared much about the size of the woman’s feet. The smaller the feet were, the richer family she must be from since she had to be waited upon from an early age. Sometimes, mischievous children went to measure the bride’s feet on her wedding day. Quite often, the mother-in-law would lift the hem of the bride’s skirt to check them. If the feet were more than four inches long, she would possibly make a demonstrative gesture of contempt and walked away, leaving the bride to the critical gaze of the wedding guests, who would stare at her feet and showed their distain. So the size of the bound feet had become not only the standard criterion of feminine beauty, but also a symbol of social status.

Foot-Binding (2)

Girls of rich families usually began to suffer the painful experience of foot-binding at the age of four or five, and in some special cases, girls as young as two years old were included. The mother, who herself had bound feet, insisted on binding the feet of her daughter, because she knew that small feet could bring her daughter a decent marriage and a good life. So the more a mother loved her daughter, the tighter she bound her feet. The young girl’s feet were bound tightly with linen strips and most of her toes would be fractured. The binding forced the girl’s toes down toward the sole of her feet to form a concave shape. As the girl reached her adulthood, her feet would remain small so that it could fit into her husband’s hand.

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By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the practice of foot-binding had become widespread among common people. Even the Manchu women followed the fashion by wearing shoes with small attachments on the bottoms of them, making them appear like those for bound feet, because Manchu rulers held in esteem the Neo-Confucian thought and were strong advocates of feudal ethics themselves. Thus more girls continued to have their feet bound and, in some provinces in North China, the practice was forced to 2-to-3-year-old girls. Their feet were less than three inches when they grew up.

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China was the only country in the world to practice foot-binding, and this custom shocked people from other countries. In some countries of the world, people made tattoos or bore holes in their nose as symbols of totem or beauty which did no great harm to their health. However, after having the feet bound, women were actually handicapped and could never walk properly again for the rest of their life. It was not until the early 20th century that the inhuman foot-binding began to die out.

Foot-Binding (5)

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