Foot binding (simplified Chinese: 缠足; traditional Chinese: 纏足; pinyin: chánzú, literally “bound feet”) was a custom practiced on young girls and women for approximately one thousand years in China , beginning in the 10th century and ending in the early 20th century.
Table of Contents
According to historical accounts it was around 970 A.D., during the rule of Li Yu, when the custom of footbinding began. The ruler’s favorite consort, Yao-niang, performed a dance atop a golden lotus pedestal that had been specially built. She had wrapped her feet in long strips of silk cloth, much like a ballerina in toe shoes today. Li Yu was so overwhelmed with the beauty of her movement as she danced that other court maidens followed suit, and “Golden Lotus” became a euphamism for their delicately bound feet. Foot binding was first present in the elite, and initially a common practice only in the wealthiest parts of China. The following centuries saw footbinding openly viewed as a method of controlling women and cultivating their moral conduct. During the 1100s the governor Chu Hsi criticized the wornen of Fujian Province for being unchaste and enjoying too much freedom, and ordered them to bind their feet to the extreme. The tiny footed women would then no longer be free to leave the household as they pleased, or engage in the sexual freedoms enjoyed by men.
Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet by an edict from the Emperor after the Manchu started their rule of China in 1644. The majority of the Minority People however followed the custom of binding the feet of their young girls. Some of the Minority People practiced loose binding which did not break the bones of the arch and toes, but narrowed the foot. The Hakka people, a unique ethnic group of Han descent, did not bind and had large natural feet. In the early twenty-first century, there have remained cases.
Process of footbinding
The main purpose of binding the feet was to break the arch of the foot which ultimately left a crevice approximately two inches deep in the foot which was considered most desirable. It took approximately two years for this process to reach the desired effect, hopefully a foot that measured three or three and one-half inches toe to heel. This perfect size was called the Golden Lotus. While footbinding could lead to serious infections, possible gangrene and were generally painful for life, contrary to many false tales the girls/women were able to walk, work in the fields, climb to mountain homes from valleys below.
Lotus Feet and Lotus Gait
There was a great pride in the tiny feet once the foot had developed into the lotus shape and this pride was shown in the slippers girls and women made to cover their deformed feet. Walking on these feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain the proper movement. This swaying walk became known as the Lotus Gait and was considered most exciting to men.
Through the centuries there were unsuccessful attempts to stop the practice of footinding. Various emperors issued edicts to this effect but they were never successful. The Empress Dowager Cixi issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion to appease the foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. 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 had the power to maintain the strict prohibition on footbinding, which is still in effect today. In Taiwan, foot binding was banned by the Japanese administration in 1915.
As late as 2005 women in one village in Yunnan Province formed an internationally known dancing troup to perform for foreign tourists. And in other areas women in their 70’s and 80’s could be found working in the rice fields well into the 21st century. In the 19th and early 20th century dancers with bound feet were very popular as were circus performers such as girls with bound feet standing on prancing or running horses.
Debates and Controversies in Existing Scholarship
Speaking of J. J. Leganeur as an example, one scholar argues that “Some contemporary male foot fetishists reject feminist arguments and
are prepared to mount a defence of footbinding.”Sheila Jeffreys: Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West. Hove and New York: Routledge. Ebook version (Taylor and Francis, 2005) p.132. Jeffreys also suggests: “The feminist scholars who write from a postmodern, cultural studies perspective about footbinding do not engage in the wholehearted condemnation that might be expected of feminists.”Sheila Jeffreys: Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West. Hove and New York: Routledge. Ebook version (Taylor and Francis, 2005), p.133 However, one of the scholars whom Jeffreys criticises in this regard suggests that “there is not one footbinding but many,” and contrasts an earlier stage of footbinding as “embodied lyricism” with a later stage of footbinding as “a ridiculous exercise of excess and folly.”Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005, p.229.[User:Jonathan Scholar|Jonathan Scholar] ([User talk:Jonathan Scholar|talk]) 23:00, 18 February 2015 (CET)
- Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
- Dorothy Ko, Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Catalogue of a museum exhibit, with extensive comments.
- Beverley Jackson Splendid Slippers – A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition: Ten Speed Press
- Howard S. Levy, The Lotus Lovers: Prometheus Books, New York, 1992
- Eugene E.Berg, , M.D. Chinese Footbinding. Radiology Review – Orthopaedic Nursing 24, no. 5 (September/October) 66-67
- Marie Vento,  One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity and Demise
- The Virtual Museum of The City of San Francisco, 
- Ping, Wang. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.
- Fan Hong (1997) Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom. London: Frank Cass
- Peter M. Austin (2008) Foot Binding: Lotus Feet are not just Spun Misogynist Feminism. London: Peter M. Austin
- Holman, Jeanine. “Bound Feet.” 29 July 2010. Bound Feet . 29 July 2010.
- Wikipedia, “Foot binding”
- Footbinding in Gender Equality in China
- Women and poverty alleviation programs in Gender Equality in China
- Beauty ideals and impact on women's self-esteem