A small foot on a woman is a beautiful woman, says ancient Chinese tradition. The practice of Chinese footbinding saw women’s feet broken and curled into 3-inch shoes at a tender age. But for what reasons: marriage, status, duty, or beauty?
“San tsun gin lian,” “Golden Lotus” or “Lily” – these were the beautiful words used to describe the gruesome practice of footbinding.
Imagine your sister, daughter, or friend – 7 years old – walking, running, and playing. Now take each tender foot, break the arch and the four smaller toes, tightly curl the toes under, and bind them with a long white cloth. Measure it against the three criteria for a perfectly bound foot:
- Three inches in length.
- A three-inch deep cleft between the heel and sole;
- And the appearance that the foot is merely an extension of the leg, not something to ever stand on.
The young girl’s feet remain in these tight cloth bindings and cease to grow.
By today’s standards, the process appears barbaric. But around the collapse of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when many scholars believe the practice originated, women with bound feet were deemed valuable commodities. One Chinese legend suggests it’s name and origin came from Prince Li Yu during the Tang Dynasty, who saw his concubine dance on her toes like a ballerina inside a six-foot high lotus. Others cite the earliest references to footbinding recorded by Su Shih during the Song Dynasty (960-1270).
But why were women’s feet bound? What was appealing about an entire gender crippled, unable to walk or work properly? And why would mothers willingly subject their daughters to lifelong pain? Debate continues as to whether footbinding was developed solely as a way to dominate women or if it was rooted in aesthetics and tradition.
On one hand, footbinding was a sign of wealth: If you could afford to provide for a woman who was unable to work, your status was clear. In politics, a woman was kept from interfering if she was immobile, and a “kept” woman reflected a powerful man. Mothers would endure binding their daughters’ feet as an investment in the future: The more attractive she could make her daughter, the better marriage prospects she had.
Whatever the origin of the painful process that created them, tiny feet were admired and respected. Dainty feet dressed in silk slippers called Lotus Shoes were considered not only attractive but also regal. Rarely would a man ever see a woman without the white cloth bindings on her feet. He may have known everything about her and saw what every part of her body looked like, but her feet always remained a mystery…
Ironically, had a husband been able to see his wife’s bound feet, he would have seen that the dainty, ornate Lotus Shoes that she wore concealed feet that were grotesquely deformed and far from beautiful.
In 1998, the last factory in China to manufacture Lotus Shoes for women with bound feet ceased production. The Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin (the capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province) began making the shoes in 1991 to fill a niche market.
In remote mountainous areas of China, women still had their feet bound as late as 1949, and there are women alive today with bound feet.
Mothers bound their daughter’s feet as early as two years old.
Children’s feet are composed primarily of pre-bone cartilage (mostly water), which made them easier to re-shape
Information and photos from the Museum of the City of San Francisco.
History of footbinding.
Information from the Journal of Women’s History.
A UCSF study on the prevalence and consequences of footbinding.