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Marie Vento:
One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity and Demise

Term Paper/Core 9: Chinese Culture/ March 7, 1998 

[Important Note: This paper was written as a class project. Copyright resides with Ms. Vento, who gave permission for its use here as an excellent example of a research paper. No permission is given for reduplication of any sort.]

In addressing the subject of footbinding, one primary difficulty becomes apparent - that much remains within the realm of the unknowable. Any factual knowledge about the practice may only be drawn from 19th- and 20th-century writings, drawings or photographs. In addition, many of these documents represent a distinctly Western point of view, as they are primarily composed of missionary accounts and the literature of the various anti -footbinding societies.[1] The historical origins of footbinding are frustratingly vague, although brief textual references suggest that small feet for women were preferred as early as the Han dynasty. The first documented reference to the actual binding of a foot is from the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing, which celebrates the fame of its dancing girls renowned for their tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes.[2] The practice apparently became the standard for feminine beauty in the imperial court, spreading downward socially and geographically as the lower classes strove to imitate the style of the elite. [3]

In its most extreme form, footbinding was the act of wrapping a three- to five-year old girl's feet with binding so as to bend the toes under, break the bones and force the back of the foot together. Its purpose was to produce a tiny foot, the "golden lotus", which was three inches long and thought to be both lovely and alluring.[4] It is believed that the origin of the term "golden lotus" emerged in the Southern Tang dynasty around 920 A.D., where the emperor Li Yu ordered his favorite concubine, Fragrant Girl, to bind her feet with silk bands and dance on a golden lotus platform encrusted with pearls and gems. Thereafter, women inside and outside the court began taking up strips of cloth and binding their feet, thinking them beautiful and distinguished, dainty and elegant. It gradually became the prevailing style and "golden lotus" became a synonym for bound feet.[5]

One notable personality who aided in the spread of footbinding was the famed writer and scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 A.D.), whose commentaries on the Confucian classics would form the canon of Neo-Confucianism that would dominate Chinese intellectual and philosophical life for six subsequent centuries. An ardent advocate of footbinding, he introduced the practice into southern Fuijan in order to spread Chinese culture and teach proper relations between men and women, greatly influencing other writers who mention the practice as if it were normal.[6]

Another factor contributing to the difficulty in assigning a point of time and origin to the practice is that the spread of footbinding was neither standardized in style nor universal in practice.[7] With local variations in method of binding, desired contours, age of initiation, paraphernalia, rituals (both public and private), shoe patterns and terminologies, it became impossible for a "master narrative" to emerge. Although some girls had their feet bound in the extreme and painful golden lotus style, others had their feet bound in less contorted manners that "merely" kept the toes compressed or limited the growth of the foot without breaking any bones.[8] In some areas and among some social groups, such as the Hakka in southern China, women's' feet were generally not bound and even among the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties the practice was not strictly observed.[9] Despite these exceptions, however, footbinding was more commonly practiced than not.

Imperial acceptance aside, the question that remains is why did Chinese women bind their feet for approximately one thousand years, until forcibly prohibited by the government? It is important to consider the practice without criticism in order to understand the symbolic and personal meanings of footbinding, which embraced a number of purposes. Its origins may be perceived as a means of enforcing the imperial male's exclusive sexual access to his female consorts, ensuring their chastity and fidelity, but its impact extended far beyond these boundaries.[10] Since the family was the most important organizational unit in Chinese society, and the family and the state often portrayed as analogous to each other, the emperor and the empress were cast as mother and father to the people. The imperial family was set the task of serving as an exemplary model to the families of the elite and, on a steadily decreasing scale of grandeur, to the lesser families of the empire.[11] Since the emperor's life was thought to have moral and political significance, information was protected and the physical freedom of the imperial and palace women was restricted. The court's custom of keeping women hidden was echoed in urban society at large, setting standards of behavior that reduced women to a state of near-total domestic seclusion. In those urban centers, such standards were widely observed by women who aspired to elite status.[12]

As time went on and the practice spread beyond the palace, the foot became so compressed that women usually hobbled about with difficulty, or had to lean on a wall or another person for support. This became especially severe among upper-class women, who became more or less confined to their boudoirs. They were physically prevented from moving about freely and unchaperoned, and were thus rendered incapable from succumbing to infidelity.[13] A young girl from a wealthy family would often receive a body servant at the time of her initial binding, to look after her personal needs during wakeful nights of pain and carry her into the garden when her feet were too painful to walk on. This often developed into a life-long relationship which provided mutual psychological dependency, as well as comfort, affection and companionship.[14]

Sanctioned by tradition and exaggerated over time, the practice was supported and transmitted by women and believed to promote health and fertility, although the reality was that bound feet were malodorous and virtually crippling. Although the bound foot was described as aesthetically pleasing compared with the natural alternative, complications such as ulceration, paralysis and gangrene were not uncommon, and it has been estimated that as many as ten percent of the girls did not survive the "treatment".[15] An old popular saying was that a mother couldn't love her daughter and her daughter's feet at the same time, and this seems to be carried out when considering what awaited a girl with unbound feet within the context of her society.[16]

Familial harmony, embracing the concepts of female purity and seclusion, was paramount, particularly in light of Neo-Confucian thinking which glorified virtuous women and praised footbinding as the ultimate marker of civility, regardless of the Confucian norm against mutilation of the body.[17] That the custom was maintained as a means towards achieving certain socially desirable goals, and that these ends justified the means, only partly explains why women were its willing practitioners. Within the areas and classes in which footbinding was widely accepted, a girl of marriageable age with natural feet had only limited prospects for making a "good" marriage, one which reflected well on her family's ability to raise her properly.[18] Having a daughter with bound feet conferred many potential benefits both on the girl and her family, transforming the biological disadvantage of being born female into a distinct social advantage by increasing her opportunities for making a lucrative marriage. Mothers impressed upon their daughters that the mark of a woman's attraction resided more in her character as revealed in the bind of her feet than in the face or body which nature had given her. Her selection in marriage was the responsibility of her prospective mother-in-law, whose criterion for a good daughter-in-law was the discipline that the bound foot represented, thus a daughter learned that she carried the reputations of both her natal family and the family into which she married in the bind of her feet.[19]

Even without the promise of hope for upward mobility which a good marriage provided, women bound their feet to signify their claim on the dignity accorded those who embodied refinement and a "sense of class". For those for whom marriage never materialized, there was still the dignity of one's own family and its male heads to uphold and the next generation of daughters for whom an example of correctness must be set.[20] It was possible to justify footbinding on the basis of its ability to conserve or maintain good family values, which were inseparable from society's values.

In a society with a cult of female chastity, one primary purpose of footbinding was to limit mobility, radically modifying the means by which females were permitted to become a part of the world at large. Painfully and forcibly reducing a little girl's foot at the precise point in her life when she was expected to begin understanding the Confucian discipline of maintaining a "mindful body" reinforced her acceptance of the practice.[21] A woman's dependency on her family was made utterly manifest in her disabled feet, and she was fully expected to acquire considerable control over her pain, reflecting the ideals of civility, a mindful body and concealment. One of the primary allures of footbinding lay in its concealment, and to be acceptable a pair of small feet had to be covered by binder, socks and shoes, doused in perfurne and scented powder, and then hidden under layers of leggings and skirts.[22] Women also attended to their feet in the strictest privacy, often washing their feet separately from the rest of their body to shield themselves and others from contamination.[23] Only those privileged to the utmost intimacy were allowed to view the processes of cleansing and care, and women wore special bed slippers even if otherwise nude.[24] Much of footbinding's aura derived from this concealment of the physicality of the foot, mirroring the privacy requirements society and family placed on the individual.

To an extent, footbinding was considered a component of female attire or adornment and not a form of body mutilation, as the body was not necessarily viewed as an enclosed physical entity.[25] Correct attire was regarded as the ultimate expression of Chinese culture and identity, differentiating them from "inferior" foreign neighbors while marking social and gender distinctions within their society. The clothing of bodies was imbued with specific cultural meaning, with properly attired bodies reflecting order and control and unadorned bodies and feet serving as visible signs of disorder and dangerous nonconformity, with the individual risking association to barbarian outsiders.[26] Besides signaling femininity and gender distinctions, footbinding functioned as a marker of national boundaries. In distinguishing the Han Chinese from other ethnic groups, it served as a reflection of cultural prestige due to its embodiment of Confucian ethics of civility and filial piety, a key to its enduring appeal.

In some peasant communities footbinding was never practiced, and usually among peasants the first footbinding took place later and was looser, as poor people could not afford the luxury of helpless women.[27] Non-Han peoples occupying Chinese territory such as the Mongols, Hakka and Tibetans did not bind the foot, suggesting a long-standing or strongly-held institution linked to other practices, such as the work of Hakka women in the fields and their early employment in the tea industry. In the rice-farming areas of China, women played more part in field agriculture and were naturally resistant to the pressures of footbinding from north China.[28]

For Chinese men, bound feet were associated with higher-status love and sex, carrying strong connotations of both modesty and lasciviousness. Bound feet became a sexual fetish and were said to be conducive to better intercourse.[29] It was accepted that these golden lotuses had developed not only an aesthetic appeal for the Chinese male, but also a sexual one. A widespread male fantasy claimed that footbinding produced the development of a highly-muscled vagina "full of wondrous folds", with the tiny appearance of the foot arousing a combination of lust and pity. Chinese pornography of the past reflects a preoccupation with the feet, and the men who adored them - "lotus lovers" - became the authors of the classics of brothel culture, which describe in detail the various shapes of bound feet and the erotic practices in which they could be employed.[30] According to Chinese connoisseurs of the golden lotus, the mincing walk necessitated by the bound foot contributed to creating a more voluptuous and sensitive sexual anatomy, and tiny feet were celebrated in poetry and song.[31]

In the Qing period, opposition began to emerge, although it was both belated and weak. The Qing ruling nobility, who were ethnically Manchu, attempted to prohibit the custom among the conquered Han Chinese. In 1645, the first Shunzhi emperor mandated that footbinding be banned, but his successor, the Kangxi emperor, revoked the ban, apparently deciding that the practice was too firmly rooted in custom to be amenable to imperial dissolution.[32]

Formally outlawed in 1911, the practice continued into the 20th century, when a combination of internal Chinese and Western missionary-inspired pressures generated calls for reform and a true anti-footbinding movement emerged. Educated Chinese realized that it made them appear barbaric to foreigners, social Darwinists argued that it weakened tile nation (for enfeebled women inevitably produced weak sons), and feminists attacked it because it caused women to suffer.[33]

The work of the anti-footbinding reformers had three aspects. First, they carried out a modern education campaign, which explained that the rest of the world did not bind women's feet and that China was losing face in the world, making it subject to international ridicule. Second, their education campaign explained the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet. Third, they formed natural-foot societies, whose members pledged not to bind their daughter's feet nor to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.[34] These three tactics effectively succeeded in bringing footbinding to a quick end, eradicating in a single generation a practice which had survived for a thousand years. Young girls were thereafter spared the tortures of footbinding, although older women with bound feet may still be seen in China and Taiwan.[35]

Nonetheless, the manner of the abolition of footbinding was both chaotic and unfair, with sloganeering and excesses of the anti-footbinding movement of the 1920's reminiscent of Cultural Revolution excesses, claiming many families as its victims.[36] Ironically, those with bound feet suffered once again as targets of this anti-footbinding movement by being forced to unbind their feet, an act only marginally less painful than the initial binding.[37] The beauty of bound feet was a value deeply rooted in the Chinese aesthetic and sexual psyche. Bound feet, and the women who had them, were considered beautiful and highly desirable, and natural, so-called big feet were considered ugly, as were the women who possessed them. To change such deeply held values, the patterns and feelings associated with them had to be inverted. What was beautiful had to be rendered ugly, and what was ugly, beautiful. To destroy one and replace it with another, the perception of beauty attached to bound feet had to be destroyed, which in its extreme moments necessitated an assault on the women who had them.[38] This almost-unreal process of change demanded its price, and the payment was often in the form of great individual suffering.

Footbinding is a bold issue, as for many Chinese people the practice is so linked to sex and sexuality that it makes them uncomfortable to discuss it and consider it seriously. For others the topic is embarassing because it suggests a backwards or barbaric streak in Chinese Culture.[39] For men footbinding is troubling because it suggests not only that men are capable of perceiving a gruesomely crippled foot as an object of seductive pleasure, but that they are further capable of using their superior social position to coerce women to conform to a standard of beauty that is both deformed and grotesque. For women, footbinding is unsettling because it reveals a willingness to cripple their own daughters to meet an aesthetic and criterion of social behavior defined by men.[40]

Today in China its last surviving practitioners are additionally handicapped by old age and arthritis, and these living anachronisms are all that remains of a vanished phenomenon. In 1995 Chinese film maker Yang Yeuqing found great difficulty in making a film about footbinding since no one in China was particularly willing to talk about it, and she feared that Chinese authorities would attempt to block the project. Chinese movies about China prior to 1911 never depict women with bound feet and Chinese museums do not display the exquisitely embroidered three-inch-long shoes that women with bound feet were obliged to wear.[41] At the October 1996 Arts of Pacific Asia show in New York City, Beverly Jackson, author of Splendid Slippers: Size One Narrow, exhibited her rare collection of 142 pairs of footbinding shoes, but had to field numerous complaints from outraged observers. In 1995, Gump's department store in San Francisco tried selling pairs of the tiny antique shoes for $975, but was quickly compelled to dismantle the accompanying, display after receiving heated objections from customers.[42] It is apparent that the Subject remains a sensitive one for many, including non-Chinese, crossing cultural and gender lines in unanimous approval for liberated feet.

Footbinding can not be shown to have been necessary to group survival as it conferred obvious disadvantages on its recipients, who given a choice, might not have participated in it. What is important to a social group is not only survival, but the survival of patterns of behavior which are considered "right" within the context of the culture. That footbinding was legitimized by scholars and tied to the custom of the patriarchal Chinese family, perpetuating the kinship system, was no adequate stronghold against the forward momentum of history, education and labor opportunities, and capitalist individualism. Rather than indicating a flawed national character, footbinding in China connected its people to its past, embodying the memory of mothers in their daughters and encompassing a fascinating, mystifying view of a changing culture.



1. Dorothy Ko, "The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China", Journal of Women's History, Winter 1997, Vol. 8, No. 4 : 9

2. Jicai Feng, The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994) 52.

3. Bernard Llewellyn, China's Courts and Concubines (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966) 79.

4. Jack Goody, The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 25.

5. Delia Davin, "The Custom of the Country", Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1992: 28.

6. Feng 235.

7. Ko 8.

8. C. Fred Blake, "Footbinding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor", Signs, Spring 1994, Vol. 19: 682

9. Goody 132.

10. Kenneth G. Butler, "Footbinding, Exploitation and Wrongfulness: A Non-Marxist Conception", Diogenes (International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies), Fall 1985, Vol. 13 1: 58.

11. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon and Pauline Allen, Stereotypes of Women in Power (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992) 122.

12. Davin 28.

13. Howard S. Levy, The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992) 146.

14. Maria Jaschok, Concubines and Bondservants (London: Oxford University Press, 1988) 97.

15. Gerry Mackie, "Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account", American Sociological Review, December 1996, Vol.61: 1000.

16. Blake 682.

17. Mackie 1000.

18. Jaschok 5 1.

19. Blake 683.

20. Goody 128.

21. Blake 679.

22. Ko 16.

23. Blake 688.

24. Bernadine Z. Paulshock, MD, "Chinese Footbinding", Journal of the American Medical Association, August 12, 1992, Vol.268, No.6: 736.

25. Butler 60.

26. Goody 49.

27. Davin 28.

28. Goody 284.

29. Mackie 1002.

30. Levy 247.

31. Blake 692.

32. Feng 235.

33. Levy 322.

34. Mackie 10 11.

35. Paulshock 736.

36. Butler 72.

37. Jaschok 239.

38. Feng 256.

39. Blake 696.

40. Ko 21.

41. Jasper Becker, "Feet of Shame", World Press Review, December 1995: 16.

42 Carol Lloyd. "These Shoes Pinch", New York Times Magazine, October 27, 1996: 25.


Becker, Jasper. "Feet of Shame". World Press Review. December 1995, Vol. 42, Issue 12.

Blake, C. Fred. "Footbinding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor". Signs. Spring 1994, Vol. 19.

Butler, Kenneth G. "Footbinding, Exploitation and Wrongfulness: A Non-Marxist Conception". Diogenes (International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies). Fall 1985, Vol. 131

Davin, Delia. "The Custom of the Country". Times Literary Supplement. April 24, 1992. p.28.

Feng, Jicai. The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

Garlick, Barbara, Suzanne Dixon and Pauline Allen. Stereotypes of Women in Power (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Goody, Jack. The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Jaschok, Maria. Concubines and Bondservants (London: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Ko, Dorothy. "The Body As Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China". Journal of Women's History. Winter 1997, Vol.8:4.

Levy, Howard S. The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992).

Llewellyn, Bernard. China's Courts and Concubines (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966).

Lloyd, Carol. "These Shoes Pinch". New York Times Magazine. Oct. 27, 1996. p. 25.

Mackie, Gerry. "Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account". American Sociological Review. December 1996, Vol.61, Issue 6.

Paulshock, MD, Bernadine Z.. "Chinese Footbinding". Journal of the American Medical Association. August 12, 1992.

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