It all started with a fad and for a thousand years the women of China suffered in pain every day of their life starting as young as 3 or 4, until they died. It was a practice that Westerners found unfathomable. It was because of the desire not to seem backward, as well as pressure from feminists and Social Darwinists that the practice was finally outlawed in 1911.
The practice is foot binding: the intentional malformation of the foot to produce “lotus flower” feet. For the Chinese, lotus bulbs symbolize purity of heart, sweetness and virtue.
And the wan-a-be:
There are several stories about how foot binding came to be practiced, but it is generally accepted that it started in 970 with Emperor Li Yu and his favorite concubine. He had had a special lotus shaped plate made for her to dance on. It was very small though, so in order stay on the plate and not fall off, she bound her feet in silk cloths, similar to our current ballet shoes, and then danced her heart out on the plate. Well, the Emperor was entranced and thought her feet were the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The ladies in the Imperial court wanted to be beautiful too, so they started binding their feet. Of course, the rich ladies didn’t want to be left out in the cold, so they started the practice and over the years foot binding came to take on more meaning than “how to look hot for your man.”
You see, the practice started during the Song dynasty and it was during this time that the status of women began to decline. By the Ming dynasty ownership of property was greatly limited, and it was considered very gauche to be educated. Women truly became trophy wives, based on their foot size. As an added bonus, bound feet were also a perfect way to keep women in their place in the home, keep them uneducated and maintain their chastity, because foot binding goes way beyond high heels for lack of practicality in footwear.
Foot binding allowed men to feel powerful, because their wives, out of necessity, were totally dependent on them. Also, a women could only have the treasured 3″ golden lotus feet if she had other people to wait on her, and so she then became a symbol of wealth. Wealth and power are a powerful aphrodisiac. I personally don’t know how deformed feet could become a sexual turn-on, but the combination of everything the bound foot represented resulted in these mangled feet becoming objects of desire. (One ancient Chinese manuscript describes 48 ways to use a bound foot for sexual pleasure.) Soon a woman’s defining characteristic became her tiny feet.
The woman could be flat chested, have a wart on her nose, and a face that would sour milk, but if she had little feet, she was golden. This was good news for the peasant women of China, because they believed small feet were their ticket out of poverty (the reality, apparently is that few managed this feat). By the Ming dynasty, 100% of rich women and over 50% of the poor were binding their feet as a way of ensuring a good marriage. Marriage was considered to be a second life for women, and soon the happiness of the rest of their life depended on the size of their feet. An unbound foot would sentence a girl to servitude or slavery, and doing hard manual labor for the rest of her life.
One study in 2009, out of Stanford posits that foot binding wasn’t just about sex, but about economics, in that it ” ‘forced girls and women to work at home, spinning yarn, processing tea and shucking oysters.’ Instead of keeping girls out of the labor market due to their broken feet, this practice kept them busily occupied in the home economy.”
Entrenched thinking like that around foot binding is hard to change, so even when the Nationalist Party in 1911 declared foot binding illegal, some women still continued to do it. One thing the women of China can thank the Communist Party for is that they made the law stick in 1949. Unfortunately they did it in a way that made women suffer even more. Women with bound feet were forced to remove their bindings. When feet have been bound for many years, walking un-bound is excruciating, as the feet need the bindings to support the foot; often it left women crippled, reduced to crawling on their hands and knees. The women with bound feet were, of course, considered bourgeois. They were given no leniency for their disability and were sent to work in the fields on their crippled feet. Because of the pain and the need to work so they wouldn’t starve, the women would sometimes continue to bind their feet and hide them in big shoes.
This past week I went to a small museum (Bai Lu Tang Ancient Shoes Museum) in Shanghai that houses over 3000 pairs of the tiny shoes that Chinese women wore for almost a thousand years. The shoes are the collection of Mr. Yan Shao Rong who has been collecting them since the 1970’s, so that this peculiar artifact of Chinese culture and history is not forgotten. To him, the shoes are a window into the Chinese way of thinking about life, and so he has devoted a room in his home to his collection. Unfortunately, because it is in his home, he would not allow photographs. All the photos you see here have come from various sources on the internet.
The binding process usually began when the girl was small–3 to 5 years, or possibly later if she was a peasant girl, who was needed to work in the fields. Once the process started, she became pretty much useless for work. The process was usually performed by a grandmother or a foot binding specialist because it was thought that mothers would be too soft on their daughters and not make the bindings tight enough. There seems to be some discrepancy as to whether the bones were broken at the outset or if they were were just gradually trained in the way they should go. It is certainly the case that older girls required the bones to be broken.
Prior to the application of the bindings, the foot would have been soaked and massaged to make it more malleable. The four small toes were folded under toward the sole of the foot and wrapped with a 2″ by 10′ binding cloth. Then the ball of the foot was bound to the heel, causing the arch to fold in on itself. The bindings were sewn in place, so they couldn’t be tampered with. As the bindings dried they would tighten even more to mold the foot and keep it from growing. I asked Mr. Yan if the bones were broken right away or if they just eventually deformed because of the binding and he said it was the latter. However, most of the articles I have read said that the toes, and probably the arch were broken the first day. The little girls were made to walk long distances afterward so that the weight of their body would continue to crush the bones. However, they were usually relieved of household chores because they were no longer very productive.
Often bamboo splints would have been bound into the wrappings on each side of the foot to straighten the sides so that the left and right foot would become identically, uniformally shaped. It took about 2 years of ever tighter bindings, applied several times a week or as often as every day, to achieve the 3″ lotus foot. It was a time of excruciating pain for the little girls, because of course, all that bone breaking was done without anesthesia. In the end they had a foot that was mostly dead and useless and possibly paralyzed. And if they complained? They would be beaten. (One of the items in the museum was a thick, red, wooden rod used for such a purpose.)
Only the front of the foot was placed in the shoe. The girls walked with most of their weight on their heels, no doubt because it was too painful to put weight on all of their broken toes. The “lotus” gait that resulted can be replicated yourself by walking across the room on your heels without the balls of your feet touching the floor.
Women never removed their bindings except to care for their feet, because, well, the grotesque look of the actual foot kind of put a damper on those sexual feelings. Also, removal of the bindings caused pain as excruciating as when the process began, and the foot would begin to spread out and lose its lotus shape.
The feet were prone to sores from ingrown toenails, and the lack of circulation from the tight bindings would make the skin of the foot, and sometimes the toes, rot and fall off. This was actually desired, because then there was less foot to cram into the shoe. In fact, if the girl had fat toes, pieces of glass or tile would be put between the toes when they were bound to promote infection. Between the rotting flesh and the fungus that grew in the folds of the deformed foot, the smell was terribly putrid, especially when they took off the bindings.
The reality of foot binding is that if it wasn’t done correctly, the girl could actually die from infection. It is said that some 10% of the girls died anyway, just from shock.
So, here we have young girls stuck at home, unable to do anything useful because of the agonizing pain in their feet. Women were more appreciated if they had no education, so they weren’t even getting to study while they were sitting around with their throbbing feet on a stool. The only occupation that was culturally acceptable was embroidery. Hence, we have the proliferation of the spectacular embroidery of China. All of women’s intelligence and energy was poured into embroidering gorgeous shoes for their feet. And that is what makes these shoes so interesting to study, because the girls were embroidering their hopes and dreams and stories on to their shoes.
And the young girls had a big embroidery job ahead of them, as they had to come in to marriage with at least 4 pairs of shoes, and preferably 16 or more–4 pairs for each season. Especially exquisite shoes could take up to a year to complete. Often a lot of the shoes in the collection were never, or rarely worn. The collection would have included designs such as a white pair to wear at funerals, house party shoes, summer and winter shoes, etc.
The most interesting shoe is the wedding shoe. The girl would make the shoe to fit her foot and then give it to a marriage broker. That shoe was her currency in the marriage market. It represented her industriousness, her cleverness and of course the tinyness of her feet. Her prospects were best if she had obtained the 3″ golden lotus foot. The day of the wedding, she would be presented with the shoe and made to put it on. If the shoe fit, the lucky Cinderella got to marry her prince.
Some of the shoes held secrets. Women weren’t allowed to have pockets and thus couldn’t carry any money, further reducing their power. Clever women would sew a secret compartment into the top of their shoes that could hold some money and thus, gain some power over their life.
Other secrets were also hidden in the shoes. The party shoes had a special heel with a tiny box that could hold perfumed gold dust. When the girl danced, the dust would come out through a cut-out stencil in the bottom of the heel, leaving a trail of fragrant, golden lotuses on the floor. The shoes for a girl’s first wedding night had a little plate inside them from her mother that showed the girl in graphic (very graphic!) detail what she should be doing that night with her new husband. Sex was never discussed, so this would have been the only way she would know what was coming. Summer shoes were lightweight and had hollow perforated soles than provided ventilation in the heat.
The typical girl would have symbols on her shoes representing happiness (2 people with a book on one side and a lotus on the other, or coins), good luck (spiders), safe journeys (boats), wealth (fish), love (butterflies), and obedience and dependence on her husband (a small shoe on top of a big shoe). A prostitute’s shoes, on the other hand were more bawdy and were covered with sexual pictures and innuendos. As part of their repertoire, prostitutes supplied their customers with tiny bowls that would fit into the prostitute’s tiny shoes. Men thought the smell of the shoes, and drinking from them was erotic–and when their drink was finished, the men were treated to another one of those graphic Chinese sex scenes on the bottom of the bowl. Bonus!
I guess it should come as no surprise that the country that brought the world stinky tofu would get off on the smell of rotting feet.
The Chinese are always practical and their shoes reflected that as well. They made outer shoes that would fit over inner shoes, so they could keep the inner shoes clean while they were outside. They made shoe covers out of human hair that were worn over the shoes in the rain and snow. They would wrap the point of outdoor shoes in leather, thus providing a harder toe that could be used for kicking bothersome people.
They even made shoes to use in their religious life. These even tinier shoes were given to the gods at the temple when asking for sons or help against evil spirits.
Just as the styles in Paris may be different than the styles you see in the US, the style of shoes differed from the North and South (and Japan and Korea who also did foot binding) and were dictated by the style of foot binding. In the North, the toe of the shoe was pointed down to accommodate the downward bend of the big toe, whereas in the South, the shoes (and toes) pointed upward, The South’s shoes were also more delicate and detailed than the North’s. People were richer in the South and the quality of their shoes reflected that.
Some areas of China practiced a more loose binding, squeezing only the toes and not the heel. Generally, peasant women would also bind their feet more loosely, out of practicality because they actually had to do work, and because they didn’t have time to do daily binding changes like a rich woman with servants.
Foot binding was everywhere in China including Tibet, Mongolia and Yunan Province. The only region where it never caught on was Manchuria. Their lives were spent on horseback, making foot binding impractical. It was also illegal. Those lucky ladies didn’t entirely escape the tyranny of fashion, however. Someone invented high heels that were truly difficult to walk in. The very tall heel was placed under the arch, thus requiring the woman to walk in the same mincing style that foot binding produces.
It is easy to blame the practice of foot binding solely on men, and say that men are pigs. But the reality is that women were just as complicit. They were after all, the ones who sat their daughters down and broke their toes, and even when it was outlawed, there were women reluctant to give it up. Maybe foot binding is really a thousand year example of everyone following the herd, to the detriment of half the population, for the benefit of the other half. Perhaps we think we’re too civilized to do something as barbaric as foot binding, but my guess is that the herd mentality is still alive and well, and possibly a part of our nature. It can rear it’s ugly head in politics, or cultural norms of beauty, or the next big thing someone comes up with.
Maybe the title of this post should have been: Foot binding: a cautionary tale.
This morning we were surprised by this delivery to our door:
To read more about foot binding, in women’s own words, please see http://www.josephrupp.com/bfindex2.html