Written by Maria Giglio
Have you ever seen a foot fitting in the palm of your hand that is not that of a child?
Female foot-binding is a practice as old as a millennium that used to be widespread among Chinese women until earlier 21st Century and was officially banned in 1912 after the establishment of the Republic of China.
You may wonder why the practice had been around for so long, and the answer is not that easy.
In China, a lotus foot, as small as 3 inches, was considered a symbol of feminine beauty, sensuality and elegance.
Fitting the lotus
As a foot this small was rare to find among adult women, foot-binding had to start as soon as possible in order to prevent its natural growth, usually around the age of 5, and would take about 2 years to complete. The girl’s feet would first be treated with hot water and oil, then all toes, except the big toes, would be broken and bound to the soles to form a triangular shape; finally, the feet were bent double and wrapped in a silk strip that would have been changed every two days to avoid infections.
As a foot this small was rare to find among adult women, foot-binding had to start as soon as possible in order to prevent its natural growth, usually around the age of 5, and took about 2 years to complete. The girl’s feet would first be treated with hot water and oil, then all toes, except the big toes, would be broken and bound to the soles to form a triangular shape; finally, the feet would be bent double and wrapped in a silk strip that would have been changed every two days to avoid infections.
After the treatment, girls had to walk for long periods of time, to facilitate the breaking of their arches so that heal and shoe would crush together to fit in smaller shoes.
Origins of Foot-binding
There are many versions of the origin of foot-binding. What is certain is that this practice was particularly popular during Song dynasty. However, a common belief relates the invention of foot-binding to the period of Tang dynasty, around the 10th Century, and thus before the Song. Emperor Yu Li asked his concubine Yao Niang to dance on her toes on a six-foot tall golden lotus. Yao Niang binded her feet in white silk so to perform the dance which was so enchanting that every woman in Court had wanted to imitate her ever since.
Historically, the first archeologic evidence about foot-binding in Ancient China dates to 1243, during the Song period, in the tomb of a 17-year-old girl named Huang Sheng.
Meaning and spread of foot-binding
Foot-binding was never imposed to women by any law. On the contrary, it was banned and condemned at times. Then why did it last for so long in first place? As already mentioned, a lotus foot was an aesthetic requirement to marry Chinese women. Soon it became a status symbol. Women with bound feet were typically regarded as particularly attractive and seductive. This is also encouraged by the fact that lotus-feet women walk slowly and gracefully to avoid aggravating the pain and uneasiness caused by the binding.
Among many aspects, one important reason why foot-binding had been widespread until later years is its relation to Han culture. After their invasion of China in 1636 and the establishment of Qing dynasty, the Manchus imposed to the conquered their costumes and traditions and among made several attempts to ban foot-binding. Consequently, Han people, who also represent the majority of Chinese nowadays, kept practicing foot-binding as a way of resistance to the ‘barbaric’ oppressors who, on their side, stopped trying to ban it.
During the Qing Dynasty and up until the 19th Century, bounded feet increasingly became a mark of beauty and turned into an advantage for finding a wealthy husband.
After the arise of many protests within the Chinese community, in 1912 the Republic of China officially banned foot-binding, but lack of enforcement and resistance didn’t stop it from being diffused until 1990s, when the practice had disappeared with the last generation of lotus feet women. By the end of the 20st Century all shoe factories in China had closed due to the lack of demand. The last factory, Zhiqiang in Harbin, was shut in 1999 with all the unsold stock being donated to the Heilongjiang Museum of Ethnography.
Pleasure and Pain: Lotus Shoes
Because of the pain caused by the broken bones and the awkward position of the feet, women could barely walk and so spent a lot of time home hand-sewing and embroidering to embellish their lotus shoes.
But what did this footwear look like? As the name suggests, the lotus shoes recalled the shape of a lotus blossom with their cone shape. They were usually made of cotton and silk and enriched with fine embroidered or hand-sewn patterns, representing animals, flowers or ‘shou’, the symbol of longevity.
The style and colour of lotus shoes varied according to the occasion. For example, while brides typically wore red shoes, the colour yellow was usually reserved to aristocracy, Imperial members, and in general wealthier classes.
A painful expression of Chinese pride
Nowadays, foot-binding is quickly stigmatised as an unnecessary and cruel practice aimed at perfect female bodies, compared to tight corsets. But the truth is much more complex than that, and the story of foot-binding tells us that there was a time when cultural identity would have been defended at any cost.
Are you curious to see lotus shoes live? Check out the following collections around the globe:
- V&A Museum – London UK
- Museum of Anthropology – University of Missouri, Mizzou North, United Sates
- The MET, New York, United States
- Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome, Italy
- Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
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One thought on “Crying In Their Shoes: The Cruel Myth Of Foot-binding”
jene Frauenfüße waren unglaublich schön.