Chinese Foot Binding

Chinese Foot Binding

Foot binding was a cultural practice that was performed in China beginning in the 9th century. It is unclear exactly how this tradition began, but the practice spread throughout the country of China to all socioeconomic levels and it lasted for 1,000 years.

It is thought that foot binding became popular based on an ancient story of an emperor’s concubine who had dainty, small feet and was referred to as “Lily Foot.” The appeal of a small-footed woman taking tiny steps promoted the practice of foot binding. It was started on young girls beginning at the age of three, so that as they grew, the size of their feet would remain small. A compress was wrapped very tightly around the girl’s foot, which made the four smallest toes wrap underneath the sole of the foot, breaking the bones. The compresses were changed frequently, becoming tighter and, over the course of time, the foot became permanently deformed into a small, arched shape about four inches long. This inhibited walking or much use of the foot at all. The process was done carefully due to the potential for lack of circulation, causing gangrene. Ingrown toenails could produce infection, which may have led to the loss of part of a foot if not monitored. The procedure was extremely painful for the girls to endure. The length of time it took to complete the process was sometimes up to two years. Shoes were fitted and became smaller and smaller as the feet shrank, until the girls wore a dainty lotus shoe.

Chinese foot binding was done as a thing of beauty; wealthy women did not have to work and their bound feet made them appear beautiful. The practice then spread to lower socioeconomic classes as well. Young girls had their feet bound in hopes of someday finding a good mate, as this was considered a desirable feature for a wife to have. It was actually considered sexually appealing to many men if a woman had tiny feet. The difficulties with walking kept women at home and made them dependant on their spouse.

In the early 20th century, societies began to form that opposed the practice. Their vocal opposition began social reforms, but it was a difficult process to change. The practice was finally outlawed in 1911 by the order of Sun Yat-sen. In China today, there are still many elderly women with deformities because they had bound feet when they were just young girls.

Many people are vocally opposed to the process of foot binding. However, as with many other practices throughout history, the custom probably made sense to people at the time and was a social norm for many. Although the practice of foot binding was very common, since its suppression it is slowly vanishing until it will be just another piece of history in China.

For more information about the practice of Chinese foot binding, refer to the following links: