Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Foot binding

Foot binding was a custom practiced on young girls or females for approximately one thousand years in China, beginning in the 10th century and ending in the early 20th century.

According to a study conducted by the , "As the practice waned, some girls' feet were released after initial binding, leaving less severe deformities." Some effects of foot binding are permanent. In the 1990s and early 2000s, some elderly Chinese women still suffered from disabilities related to bound feet.

In Chinese foot binding, young girls' feet were wrapped in tight bandages so that they could not grow and develop normally; they would, instead, break and become highly deformed, not growing past 4-6 inches . As the girl reached adulthood, her feet would remain small and prone to infection, paralysis, and muscular atrophy. Though the process had made her completely incapable of any strenuous physical labour outside, or walking for great distances without aid, women with bound feet had no greater difficulty preparing meals or doing general household chores than women with unbound feet. If a girl's feet were bound in this manner, four toes on each foot would break within a year; the first remained intact. The arch had to be well-developed for the perfect "lotus foot" to be formed, so some women would bind their girls' feet at a later age; the ideal was a 3-in. foot , and no longer than 4 in , called silver lotuses. Bound feet would bend, becoming so concave they were sometimes described as "lotus hooks". The binding process resulted in intense pain and caused phalanges to fracture easily, and additionally resulted in an unsteady walk, referred to as the "lotus gait."

The earliest recorded opponent to footbinding was a writer from the Song Dynasty called Ch'e Jo-shui.

The Manchus, who conquered China in the 17th century, tried without success to abolish the practice. Manchu women were forbidden from binding their feet or the feet of their daughters. Instead they wore 'flower bowl' shoes which gave the illusion of tiny feet. Bound feet became an important differentiating marker between Manchu and Han. One of the objectives of the Taiping Rebellion was to end footbinding in the name of gender equality.

The practice continued into the 20th century, when a combination of Chinese and Western called for reform and a true anti-footbinding movement emerged. Educated Chinese began to understand that it made them appear barbaric to foreigners, s argued that it weakened the nation, for enfeebled women inevitably produced weak sons, and feminists attacked it because it caused women to suffer.. At the turn of the 20th century, gentry women, such as Kwan Siew-Wah, a unique pioneer feminist, advocated for the end of female foot-binding. Kwan herself refused the foot-binding imposed on her since her youth so that she could grow normal feet.

In 1911, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Republic of China government banned foot binding; women were told to unwrap their feet lest they be killed. Some women's feet grew 1/2 - 1 inch after the unwrapping, though some found the new growth process extremely painful and emotionally and culturally devastating. Societies developed to support the abolition of footbinding, with contractual agreements between families promising their infant son in marriage to an infant daughter that would not have her feet bound. When the Communists took power in 1949, they maintained the strict prohibition on footbinding, which is still in effect today.

Reception and appeal

Bound feet were considered intensely erotic. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet. Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny "lotus shoes". Feng Xun is recorded as stating, "If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever." For them, the erotic effect was a function of the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. The very fact that the bound foot was concealed from men's eyes was, in and of itself, sexually appealing. On the other hand, an uncovered foot would also give off a foul odor, as various would colonise the unwashable folds. The other primary attribute of a woman having bound feet was to limit her mobility, altering the means by which females were allowed to be a part of politics and of the world at large. It also gave the woman an irreversible dependency on her family. Thus bound feet became an alluring symbol of chastity, as a bound foot woman was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without an escort to help her, thus denying any advances upon her and ensuring her total devotion to her husband.


A mother or grandmother typically began binding her daughter's or granddaughter's feet when the child was between the ages of four and seven. The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to properly develop. Binding usually started during the winter months so that the feet were numb, meaning the pain would not be as extreme .

First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood. This concoction caused any necrotised flesh to fall off . Then her toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent ingrowth and subsequent infections. To prepare her for what was to come next the girl's feet were delicately massaged. Silk or cotton bandages, ten feet long and two inches wide, were prepared by soaking them in the same blood and herb mix as before. Each of the toes were then broken and wrapped in the wet bandages, which would constrict when drying, and pulled tightly downwards toward the heel. There may have been deep cuts made in the sole to facilitate this .

This ritual would be repeated every two days, with fresh bindings. Every time the bandages were rebound they would be pulled tighter making this process continually painful. The most common ailment of bound feet was infection. Toenails would ingrow and could lead to flesh rotting, occasionally causing the toes to drop off. Disease inevitably followed infection meaning that death could result from foot binding. Occasionally, the ball of the foot would grow directly into the heel. As the girl grew older, she was more at risk from medical problems. Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls and were less able to stand up from sitting.

Foot binding in literature and film

The bound foot has played a prominent part in many works of literature, both Chinese and non-Chinese. These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumor or supposition. This is only to be expected when a practice is so emotionally charged. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's ''The Good Earth'', the accounts are relatively neutral.

Anchee Min describes a graphic depiction of a young girl's foot binding in her memoir ''Red Azalea'', as well as another's refusal to have her feet bound in ''Becoming Madame Mao''.

Lisa See has read widely and writes about foot binding in ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan'' and ''Peony in Love''.

Li Juzhen wrote a satirical novel ''Jinghua yuan'', translated as ''Flowers in the Mirror'' which includes a visit to the mythical Kingdom of Women. There it is the men who must bear children, menstruate, and bind their feet. The recent Chinese author Feng Jicai's novel ''Three Inch Golden Lotus'' presents a satirical picture of the movement to abolish the practice.

In the novel and miniseries ''Broken Trail'', by Alan Geoffrion, one of the young Chinese slaves has bound feet and relies heavily on others for support while walking.

Isabelle Allende's novel ''Daughter of Fortune'' includes a character whose feet have been bound, as well as a several passages about the aesthetics of foot-binding.

Diana Gabaldon's novel '''' includes a Chinese character who explains his foot binding and the sexual aspect of it.

Ji-li Jiang wrote the book Red Scarf Girl and in it Ji li's grandmother had incredibly tiny feet (smaller than three inches]] due to her binding her feet as a young child.

James Clavell's novel '''' describes a bride with bound feet and the custom of binding the feet.

Kathryn Harrison's novel ''The Binding Chair'' describes the process of foot-binding, as well as exploring some of the trauma associated with the practice.

Fictional accounts

* Li Ju-chen , ''Flowers in the Mirror'' translated, edited by Lin Tai-yi .
* Lisa See, ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A novel''
* Jicai Feng , ''The Three-Inch Golden Lotus'' .
* Kathryn Harrison, ''The Binding Chair, or, a Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society: A Novel'' .

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