Small, slim, soft, pointed, straight, arched, fragrant. If you were a Chinese woman during the thousand years between the late Tang Dynasty and 1949, and your feet didn’t meet these criteria, you would have been doomed to a life of ridicule and social exile. You’d have been jeered at, called “Iron Feet”, and your chances of finding a decent husband would have been close to zero. Chán zú (缠足), or foot-binding, was a practise that stunted the feet of over 3 billion Chinese women for a millennium, in the name of beauty. These days, most people (including modern Chinese) see the custom as a barbaric blot on China’s history, and feminists rail against it. But only a couple of generations ago, “lotus feet” were the ultimate proof of womanly beauty. Looking at images of unwrapped lotus feet with their curled, callused toes and gnarled bones makes you wonder exactly where the sex appeal lay, but for a thousand years, men fetishized these tiny feet.
Why? There are several explanations. Legend has it that a Shang empress born with club feet insisted that all the women in the land have their feet bound to match hers. Another story goes that 10th century Song emperor Li Yu fell in love with a small-footed dancer called Yao Niang whose party piece was to perform a dance on a lotus flower. Along the same lines, the dancing girls popular in Nanjing during the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975) were famed for their miniscule feet which they bound to fit into tiny shoes. But whatever its origins, foot-binding became de rigueur among the Han upper classes. As well as being sexually appealing (lotus feet caused women to walk with an alluring sway in their step known as the lotus gait, and it was believed that walking like this tightened the vaginal muscles) having bound feet showed that a woman’s husband was rich enough for her not to work. This idea spread across the classes, and working women were eventually subjected to foot-binding as a way of bettering themselves; finding a husband was difficult with normal sized feet, no matter if you were rich or poor.
Foot-binding began among the Han majority and quickly spread to most Chinese minority groups. The Manchu tribe was one notable exception, though. They never adopted the practise, and tried to outlaw it when they rose to power in 1644. The Hakka also refrained, but the women yearned for tiny feet so they actually designed a style of shoe which emulated the lotus gait. By the 19th century, nearly all upper class women practised foot-binding, while 40 to 50% of lower class females had bound feet.
X-ray of a bound foot. Photo: Library of Congress
The process of foot-binding was a long and painful one. Sometime between the ages of three and ten, girls would take their first tentative steps on a journey that would lead them through years of agony towards the ultimate goal – high social standing and a good match in marriage. So, it was with a mixture of dread and excitement that little girls sat down in the binding chair. First, an auspicious day would be chosen by the girl’s family. This was usually in winter, when the cold weather would help numb her feet. It was rare that a girl’s mother would bind her feet; a female relative or professional binder was preferred, as she would be less likely to feel sympathy for the girl and bind less tightly. The aim was to crush and truss the feet so they would fit into tiny, three-inch lotus shoes. If a girl’s feet ended up being bigger, it was seen as a great disappointment, and her marriage prospects would be severely limited.
When a lucky day had been selected, the girl’s feet were massaged with a mixture of herbs and liquids. The ingredients varied from region to region: animal blood, ground monkey bones, frankincense, and even urine were used. After the skin was supple and the muscles malleable, the toenails were clipped to prevent in-growth, and the toes were curled tight towards the sole of the foot. Depending on the age of the girl, the toes would either bend naturally, or be broken – all except the big toe which remained straight. Next, the arch of the foot would be broken, and an astringent powder called alum applied before the bandages went on. A fabric strip ten feet long was wrapped around each foot, and then sewn tightly to stop the girl undoing it.
The breaking of the arch and subsequent binding made a deep ridge in the foot. The ideal ridge would be able to accommodate several coins. It’s difficult to imagine the sort of pain that these girls had to withstand. They weren’t allowed to rest after the bindings were applied and adjusted, but had to carry on as normal, walking everywhere, so their feet would mould into shape. Around one tenth of girls died - sometimes through sheer agony, but mostly from gangrene or septicaemia. Due to the expense of the products, only rich girls could afford the daily maintenance that bound feet required. Poorer girls suffered fungal infections, and often lost toes.
If the binding process went well, by the time a girl reached puberty her feet would be between three and four inches long. It was a case of “the smaller, the better,” as her miniature lotus shoes would have been shown to prospective families in her parents’ search for a husband.
Bound feet and a normal Chinese foot. Photo: Library of Congress
The popularity of foot-binding continued into the 20th century despite efforts from western missionaries to ban it. Most girls were so consumed by their culture that they actually requested to have their feet bound, and often did it themselves if their parents weren’t keen. Even the rise of the Republic in 1911 and the new government’s ban didn’t dissuade another generation of girls from taking up their bindings. Only very few, like early feminist Kwan Siew-Wah, and Manchurian empress Cixi, took a stand against the practise, but their voices were faint.
Eventually, opinions began to change, as Chinese people started to realise that foot-binding gave their country a bad reputation in other nations’ eyes. The Communist Party banned binding forever in 1949, and forced women to unbind their feet or face execution. Nowadays, chán zú is a thing of the past, but until very recently, the Yunnan town of Liuyicun was home to the last surviving women with bound feet. Thanks to the remoteness of Liuyicun’s location, the women were able to keep their feet bound despite the Communist ban. They could be seen tottering along the modern streets in their lotus shoes on strange, stilt-like legs – living relics of a practise that bound their mothers and their mothers’ mothers into an almost unimaginable dual state of servility and esteem.
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"... until very recently, the Yunnan town of Liuyicun was home to the last surviving women with bound feet." Ehm, there must be more surviving ones around, i saw two in jianshui in Yunnan in february and one just outside Kunming. And it indeed does look hurtful to watch, especially when carrying big baskets on their back ...
Jul 01, 2010 22:58 Report Abuse
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