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What Is Foot Binding?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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In most contexts, the term “foot binding” describes the ancient Chinese practice of binding girls’ feet to form them to be as small as possible. The practice is believed to have originated sometime in the 1100s, and persisted until well into the 20th century. It is not thought to occur in modern China, though women who endured the process are still living today. In most cases, the binding began sometime between a girl’s third and tenth birthdays. Her toes were broken and bound back towards the sole of the foot, and the arch crushed to form a triangular shape. Tiny feet were seen as an indication of status, and in many instances served to make a girl marriageable. In many places it is also thought to have shown her and her family’s dedication to Confucian ideals of culture, character, and gender roles.

Process

The process itself is often considered to be somewhat gruesome. In almost all cases the procedure was performed and overseen by the women of the family, and grandmothers were usually the ones to bind the feet of their granddaughters. First, the feet were soaked in hot water, then massaged with hot oil and towels. All toes but the biggest one were usually then broken, bent back towards the sole, and tied as tightly as possible. The girl was required to walk regularly to encourage the breaks to hold and to compress the arch of the foot.

Bandages and bindings were changed regularly and tightened, too. In most cases the goal was to achieve a “golden lotus,” which is a foot that measured no more than 3 inches (about 7.6 cm) in length. A so-called “silver lotus,” or foot that measured no more than 4 inches (about 10.1 cm) was usually considered acceptable, but anything longer than that was often thought to defeat the purpose. In sum the process of binding and tightening usually took about two years, though regular maintenance was usually required for life.

Reasoning and Philosophy

There are various theories about the exact origin of this practice. One legend places the beginning of the tradition in the 10th century. It is commonly held that foot binding resulted because of a Chinese ruler named Li Yu. One of his consorts, Yao-niang, is said to have danced on a golden lotus pedestal with her feet wrapped in silk. Claims that Li Yu was overwhelmed with the beauty of Yao-niang’s dancing allegedly incited other ladies to imitate her. The trend was ultimately associated with feminine beauty and subservience, and became in many places essentially a requirement for a desirable marriage.

Small feet were often seen as a sense of pride both for a woman and her husband’s family. Women with bound feet typically exhibited them in tiny, embroidered shoes with a wooden platform, and the shoes were often quite intricate. The special shoes were typically called “lotus shoes,” and usually came to a sharp point at the toe; according to some, the shape of the bound foot as a whole was meant to recall a crescent moon.

Health and Hygiene Concerns

Foot binding required a high degree of care and attention to hygiene. It was common for the feet to swell, fill with pus, and smell of rotting flesh. When unwrapped, the feet and any wounds that resulted from the tight wrapping were groomed. Women also had to have their toenails carefully cut. Ingrown toenails posed serious risks of infection. Bound feet are connected to health effects that have been known to last throughout life in some cases.

Changing Times and Sensibilities

For centuries in China, women without the specially shaped feet emblematic of foot binding were generally considered unrefined and unattractive. This has changed, and the process is no longer considered desirable or even attractive by most members of society, and in fact the process was outlawed in 1911 — though many families defied this and continued foot binding as a matter of tradition and pride. The last factory producing the special “lotus shoes” closed in the late 1990s, due in large part to lack of demand.

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Discussion Comments
By anon142616 — On Jan 13, 2011

The process outlined above is a mild version of binding. If the girl was a little older when her feet were first bound, a more extreme form of binding would be used. For example, the girl's toes and arches would be broken, and then the foot was folded and the front of the foot was forced towards the heel. The girl would suffer extreme pain from this.

Once the foot was folded like that, the feet would be bound tightly, once again causing extreme foot pain. However much pain she was feeling, the girl was required to walk on her newly broken and bound feet, in order to grind and crush the foot bones even further. And that was just the beginning.

By anon91715 — On Jun 23, 2010

foot binding didn't fade. it was forbidden by China in 1911.

By anon48907 — On Oct 15, 2009

scary.

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