Foot Binding in China

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Foot binding in China was a practice that involved systematically wrapping a woman’s foot in cloth bandages over a period of years, forcing it to grow in a particular way. This usually left women unable to walk properly and was extremely painful.

Foot binding literally restructures the shape of the foot by breaking the arch and four toes on both feet. This process begins at a young age, usually around seven years of age. The feet would be repeatedly rebound up until a girl stopped growing.

Not all women practiced foot binding in China. For example, many ethnic minority groups, such as the Manchus, did not practice food binding at all. Likewise Hakka Chinese women did not bind their feet. Because Hakka men often worked far from home, women were required to labor on farms. Foot binding would mean they could not adequately perform agricultural labor.

History of Foot Binding

The origins of ancient Chinese foot binding are unclear. Some believe that the practice started after the Tang Dynasty (which ended in 907 AD). According to a legend, a beautiful concubine danced on her toes like a ballerina inside of a giant lotus flower. Since the shape of the concubine’s toes resembled bound feet, this became an image of beauty and grace.

Other accounts claim that the practice began during the Tang Dynasty. The earliest written records of foot binding are found in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), leading some scholars to believe it began during this period.

Various efforts were made to restrict or ban foot binding throughout history. The Republic of China legally ended the practice in 1911 but it continued on in many areas. It was effectively abolished after the Communist Party banned it in 1949.

Why Did Foot Binding Exist?

There are various theories as to why foot binding was continually practiced in China for 1000 years. The major reason is that many men found bound feet to be highly erotic. This can be seen in a special name given to bound feet: “golden lilies.” Specially designed food binding shoes known as “lotus shoes” were made to fit bound feet and were also seen as highly attractive.

In turn, many families felt pressure to bind their daughters’ feet to increase her chances of entering a good marriage. Essentially, ancient Chinese foot binding was seen as an investment in a girl’s future.

Another theory is that foot binding was used as a way to ensure female submission in a patriarchal society. Since women with bound feet were physically disabled, they would be dependent on male labor for survival. This perpetuated the superior role of men in Chinese society.

Some speculate that foot binding was silent Han Chinese protest against foreign Manchu rule during the Qing Dynasty.