The Strange Practice of Chinese Foot Binding
Millions of women in China – for over 1,000 years – practiced a brutal fashion trend in which they mutilated their feet through the act of “foot-binding.” It’s dangerous, painful and an example of how persistent and pervasive social pressures can be when it comes to fashion. In this episode, we learn about the ancient practice of foot binding and then play the quick quiz with Musician, Speaker, Jason LeVasseur!
Throughout history, we’ve seen a few examples of fashion becoming harmful. I made a quick list and here are some of them.
Corsets have been a fashion item going back to the 1820s and – especially if they are cinched tightly, they can cause serious health problems. They can cause core muscles to weaken, which leads to back problems, but they can also sort of push your organs down, causing atrophy and reduce lung capacity.
Another sign of wealth was the high collar worn by men. There are examples of men literally choking themselves to death with a stiff, high collar. The same could be said for women’s chokers. And if we’re talking chokers, we can see the fashion and cultural trend of the Kayan tribe in Myanmar, who stretch their necks with multiple brass neck rings. The rings have been known to push the collarbone down over time, which can cause the vertebrae to collapse.
In Ethiopia, the Mursi tribe has worn large plates in their lips for centuries. This causes permanent disfiguration among other issues. The same could be said for the fashion of ear gauges, which need to be done carefully to avoid permanent scaring and pain, but even when done right, cause irreversible stretching.
Some of these fashion trends seemed cool at the time until science realized how dangerous they were. For instance, radium was used in hair and cosmetics because it gave a radiant glow. But they didn’t know at the time how dangerous those radioactive isotopes could be.
Well like these fashion trends, there’s one that occurred in China for a millennium.
The practice of foot-binding dates back to the 10th Century. An early description of the practice mentions the emporer’s favorite concubine dancing on a lotus-shaped stage who had bound her feet into the shape of hooves. This was the period of China known as the “5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms” that succeeded the Tang Dynasty. This concubine of the emperor was popular and envied by the other women in his back palace – which was basically another word for harem. But these were high-class women and binding their feet became a symbol associated with royalty.
200 years later, in the 12th century – not only had foot-binding continued, it had become so popular that every young girl in China wanted bound feet. This was the time of the Song Dynasty. Basically, if a female wanted to eventually get married, she would have to have bound feet. Whereas the original foot-binding was associated with sexuality, the practice was – by the 12th century – associated with modesty, virtue and morality. The girls who didn’t bind their feet were viewed as lower class or poor. It was every girl’s aspiration during this period to have her feet bound.
So what is this? What is foot-binding? The best way to answer this would be to look at a photo, so I’ve included one in the show notes for this week, but essentially from a young age – usually around 10 or 12 years old, they would begin wrapping their feet tightly in muslin cloth. I found some sources that say this wrapping began as early as age 4. I’ve also found sources that dispute that. They couldn’t wait too long because they had to do it before the girl’s feet were fully grown. The practice of foot binding was painful and this was easier for parents to do to a young person. The first binding would accompany a ceremony to ward off bad luck. The feet would be soaked in hot water, toenails cut short and then the toes would be broken and folded down under the sole of the foot to make the foot smaller. Then the foot would be bent downward at the arch and wrapped tightly. This actually entailed repeatedly breaking the foot when it grew too large. They would be encouraged to walk on their bound feet and the wrappings would be changed every few days. And the result was that as they aged, their feet grew into this bound form that resembled a hoof. The process took about two years to complete. It was referred to as having “lotus feet.”
Of course, this also affected the way that a woman with bound feet walked. It really was like walking on point, or as if she really had hooves. And so – not only the appearance of a girl’s feet could telegraph her social status, but also the way that she walked. Chinese men came to love and expect women to have so-called “lotus-feet.” The “toast to the golden-lotus” was a special ceremonial toast performed by Chinese men in which they would drink from the tiny shoes made for the bound feet.
These tiny shoes were called “lotus shoes” and were just 2 to 3 inches wide by around 5 inches long. They really looked like shoes made for dolls.
Like a few of the stories I’ve covered in the past like the episode about Straw Hats, one of the reasons that bound feet were a status symbol was because of this idea that if you had bound feet, you weren’t able to go and work in fields, or do manual labor. This is similar to the several societies in which men grow a fingernail long or wear white clothes to show that they aren’t in the working labor class. A 3 inch foot was known as a “golden lotus” and was the most desirable foot size. The silver lotus was a 4 inch foot and was still acceptable, but once a foot was 5 inches or more – deemed an iron lotus, it was a symbol of lower class. And this actually affected whether or not a girl could find a husband.
So why did this barbaric practice last for so long?
Of course the practice of Chinese foot binding had horrible permanent effects. These consequences were neglected for a millennium – all for the cause of fashion. This little signal of class was so important that it made millions of women ignore that their feet were repeatedly broken causing horrible pain. And millions of women did this to their little girls. Because if they didn’t, they saw the social consequences as even worse than the physical ones.
The process of binding the feet could sometimes lead to infection, which could then lead to gangrene. It’s hard to tell how many, but it’s believed that many young girls died from this. If the foot didn’t become infected, they would certainly become atrophied, tendons and muscles weakened and circulation in the foot would be severely limited. The weight of the human body is meant to be spread out and distributed between the toes, balls of the foot and heel. When a woman had bound foot, her weight would rest on just a couple small points, causing unusual stress. This led to a larger than average amount of hip fractures. Doctors have conducted studies on these women and found that they have lower bone density in their hips. Women with bound feet could never walk normally again – but as we talked about a little bit earlier, the walk was all part of the social picture. This debilitating walk was a sign of bound feet, which was a sign of high class. But as women with so-called “lotus feet” aged, they were unable to participate in some of the normal parts of life like leaving the house to go to the store, for example. A couple weeks ago we replayed the episode about the Limping Ladies of London which is a similar sociological issue. Women pretended to limp in order to mimic the Princess of Wales, who had a legitimate medical condition. China did one better. They gave millions of women for thousands of years an ACTUAL medical condition.
Why did this last so long? Social pressure is really strong. And unlike a clothing fad, this was life-long. So little girls saw their moms with bound feet – who saw their mothers with bound feet. And if the process took place when a girl was a teenager, it may have ended sooner, as a young girl gained agency and said she didn’t want this. But the practice was to do it at a very young age. In this way, it’s almost like the practice of circumcision. The child really has no say in it. And there was an additional cultural pressure that may have been just as strong as the pressure to fit into Chinese social class. Ethnic pride. China was the only place that had this practice, so it was a way to show where you’re from and take pride in and celebrate that. In this way, it’s probably much like the neck rings and lip plates in Myanmar and Ethiopia I mentioned earlier. And if you look back into the history of China, it was a way for the women to show themselves as different than the Mongols, who had ruled them after 1279.
The negative effects of the practice weren’t lost on people. And there were groups that tried to end it. The first that I could find was a very early Chinese feminist who had her feet bound and then decided to undergo the painful process of breaking her feet to unbind them as an adult. Her name was Qiu Jin and she lived from 1875 to 1907. So this is very early for feminism – especially in China. She was shunned and attacked for her views. She was able to learn about Western cultures because of her wealthy family. This exposed her to education and travel and she was able to see how barbaric the practice actually was. She spoke out publicly against foot-binding and co founded a feminist newspaper which was shut down by China after two issues.
The Manchus themselves, who ruled over China in the 17th century tried to end foot-binding, but the Chinese public fought back to protect this practice that they saw as part of their culture. They banned it, but the public didn’t change. Societies to end foot-binding were formed toward the end of the 19th century to educate the public. Finally, it took the nationalist revolution in 1911 to put an “official end” to foot-binding. Even then, it took a long time to actually stop. In the years between 1910 and 1925, women with bound feet went from 97% to just 5%. In 1999, the last company to manufacture the special lotus shoes finally closed.
In 2022, it’s almost impossible to find a woman with bound feet. If you were to find one, the chances are that she’d be close to 100 years old.
It took a thousand years. A thousand years to end a horrible practice that hurt and possibly killed many Chinese women. There are modern parallels. Look at the wearing of high heels and stilettos. It’s a modern symbol of social status that has detrimental effects on the wearer’s health if worn too often. But at the end of the day, the shoes can come off. It’s incredible when you look at history what social pressures can do to an individual. It’s safe to say that if a modern Chinese woman saw what their female ancestors went through, they wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.
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