A Chinese woman showing her foot, image by Lai Afong, c. 1870s
|Alternative (Min) Chinese name|
Foot binding was the custom of applying tight binding to the feet of young girls to modify the shape and size of their feet. The practice possibly originated among upper class court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in 10th century China, then gradually became popular among the elite during the Song dynasty. Foot binding eventually spread to most social classes by the Qing dynasty and the practice finally came to an end in the early 20th century. Bound feet were at one time considered a status symbol as well as a mark of beauty. Yet, foot binding was a painful practice and significantly limited the mobility of women, resulting in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects. Feet altered by binding were called lotus feet.
Foot binding was practised in different forms, and the more severe form of binding may have been developed in the 16th century. It has been estimated that by the 19th century, 40-50% of all Chinese women may have had bound feet, and up to almost 100% among upper-class Chinese women. The prevalence and practice of foot binding however varied in different parts of the country.
There had been attempts to end the practice during the Qing dynasty; Manchu Kangxi Emperor tried to ban foot binding in 1664 but failed. In the later part of the 19th century, Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out as a result of anti-foot-binding campaigns. By 2007, there were only a few surviving elderly Chinese women known to have bound feet.
There are a number of stories about the origin of foot binding before its establishment during the Song dynasty. One of these involves the story of a favourite consort of the Southern Qi emperor Xiao Baojuan, Pan Yunu (died 501 AD), who had delicate feet and danced barefoot on a floor decorated with golden lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and said that "lotus springs from her every step!" (?), a reference to the Buddhist legend of Padmavati under whose feet lotus springs forth. This story may have given rise to the terms "golden lotus" or "lotus feet" used to describe bound feet; there is, however, no evidence that Consort Pan ever bound her feet.
The general view is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of the 10th-century Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang, just before the Song dynasty. Li Yu created a six-foot tall golden lotus decorated with precious stones and pearls, and asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon, and perform a ballet-like dance on the points of her feet on the lotus. Yao Niang's dance was said to be so graceful that others sought to imitate her. The binding of feet was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread.
Some of the earliest possible references to foot binding appear around 1100, when a couple of poems seemed to allude to the practice. Soon after 1148, in the earliest extant discourse on the practice of foot binding, scholar Zhang Bangji wrote that a bound foot should be arch-shape and small. He observed that "women's footbinding began in recent times; it was not mentioned in any books from previous eras." In the 13th century, scholar Che Ruoshui wrote the first known criticism of the practice: "Little girls not yet four or five years old, who have done nothing wrong, nevertheless are made to suffer unlimited pain to bind [their feet] small. I do not know what use this is."
The earliest archaeological evidence for foot binding dates to the tombs of Huang Sheng, who died in 1243 at the age of 17, and Madame Zhou, who died in 1274. Each had her feet bound with 6-foot-long gauze strips. Zhou's skeleton was well preserved and showed that her feet fit the narrow, pointed slippers that were buried with her. The style of bound feet found in Song dynasty tombs, where the big toe was bent upwards, appears to be different from the norm of later eras, and the excessive smallness of the feet, the "three-inch golden lotus", may be a later development in the 16th century.
At the end of the Song dynasty, men would drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself. This practice was called "toast to the golden lotus" and lasted until the late Qing dynasty.
The first European to mention footbinding was the Italian missionary Odoric of Pordenone in the 14th century during the Yuan dynasty. However, no other foreign visitors to Yuan China mentioned the practice, including Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo (who nevertheless noted the dainty walk of Chinese women who took very small steps), perhaps an indication that it was not a widespread or extreme practice at that time. The practice however was encouraged by the Mongol rulers on their Chinese subjects. The practice became increasingly common among the gentry families, later spreading to the general population, as commoners and theatre actors alike adopted footbinding. By the Ming period, the practice was no longer the preserve of the gentry, but it was considered a status symbol. As foot binding restricted female movement, one side effect of its rising popularity was the corresponding decline of the art of dance in China in women, and it became increasingly rare to hear about beauties and courtesans who were also great dancers after the Song era.
The Manchus issued a number of edicts to ban the practice, first in 1636 when the Manchu leader Hong Taiji declared the founding of the new Qing dynasty, then in 1638, and another in 1664 by the Kangxi Emperor. However, few Han Chinese complied with the edicts and Kangxi eventually abandoned the effort in 1668. By the 19th century, it was estimated that 40-50% of Chinese women had bound feet, and among upper class Han Chinese women, the figure was almost 100%. Bound feet became a mark of beauty and were also a prerequisite for finding a husband. They also became an avenue for poorer women to marry into money in some areas; for example, in late 19th century Guangdong, it was customary to bind the feet of the eldest daughter of a lower-class family who was intended to be brought up as a lady. Her younger sisters would grow up to be bond-servants or domestic slaves and be able to work in the fields, but the eldest daughter would be assumed to never have the need to work. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the "Golden Lotus", being about three Chinese inches long (around 4 inches or 10 centimetres in Western measurement). This pride was reflected in the elegantly embroidered silk slippers and wrappings girls and women wore to cover their feet. Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered to be erotically attractive to some men.
Some women with bound feet might not have been able to walk without the support of their shoes and thus would have been severely limited in their mobility. However, many women with bound feet were still able to walk and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitations than their non-bound counterparts. In the 19th and early 20th century, dancers with bound feet were popular, as were circus performers who stood on prancing or running horses. Women with bound feet in one village in Yunnan Province even formed a regional dance troupe to perform for tourists in the late 20th century, though age has since forced the group to retire. In other areas, women in their 70s and 80s could be found providing limited assistance to the workers in the rice fields well into the 21st century.
Opposition to foot binding had been raised by some Chinese writers in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, many of the rebel leaders of the Taiping Rebellion were of Hakka background whose women did not bind their feet, and foot binding was outlawed. The rebellion however failed, and Christian missionaries, who had provided education for girls and actively discouraged what they considered a barbaric practice, then played a part in changing elite opinion on footbinding through education, pamphleteering, and lobbying of the Qing court. The earliest-known Western anti-foot binding society, Jie Chan Zu Hui (?), was formed in Xiamen in 1874. In 1875, 60-70 Christian women in Xiamen led by Alicia Little attended a meeting presided over by a missionary John MacGowan formed the Natural Foot (tianzu, literally Heavenly Foot) Society. It was then championed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement founded in 1883 and advocated by missionaries including Timothy Richard, who thought that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.
Reform-minded Chinese intellectuals began to consider footbinding to be an aspect of their culture that needed to be eliminated. In the 1883, Kang Youwei founded the Anti-Footbinding Society near Canton to combat the practice, and anti-footbinding societies sprang up across the country, with membership for the movement claimed to reach 300,000. The anti-footbinding movement however stressed pragmatic and patriotic reasons rather than feminist ones, arguing that abolition of footbinding would lead to better health and more efficient labour. Reformers such as Liang Qichao, influenced by Social Darwinism, also argued that it weakened the nation, since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons. At the turn of the 20th century, early feminists, such as Qiu Jin, called for the end of foot-binding. Many members of anti-footbinding groups pledged to not bind their daughters' feet nor to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet. In 1902, the Empress Dowager Cixi issued an anti-foot binding edict, but it was soon rescinded.
In 1912, the new Republic of China government banned foot binding (though not actively implemented), and leading intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement saw footbinding as a major symbol of China's backwardness. Local warlords such as Yan Xishan in Shanxi engaged in their own sustained campaign against footbinding with feet inspectors and fines for those who continued with the practice, while regional governments of the later Nanjing regime also enforced the ban. The campaign against footbinding was very successful in some regions; in one province, a 1929 survey showed that whereas only 2.3% of girls born before 1910 had unbound feet, 95% of those born after were not bound. In a region south of Beijing, Dingxian, where over 99% of women were once bound, no new cases were found among those born after 1919. In Taiwan, the practice was also discouraged by the ruling Japanese from the beginning of Japanese rule, and from 1911 to 1915 it was gradually made illegal. The practice however lingered on in some regions in China; in 1928, a census in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet, while in some remote rural areas such as Yunnan Province it continued to be practised until the 1950s. In most parts of China, however, the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949. The practice was also stigmatized in Communist China, and the last vestiges of footbinding were stamped out, with the last new case of footbinding reported in 1957. By the 21st century, only a few elderly women in China still have bound feet. In 1999, the last shoe factory making lotus shoes, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, closed.
Foot binding was practised in various forms and its prevalence varied in different regions. A less severe form in Sichuan, called "cucumber foot" (huanggua jiao) due to its slender shape, folded the four toes under but did not distort the heel and taper the ankle. Some working women in Jiangsu made a pretense of binding while keeping their feet natural. Not all women were always bound--some women once bound remained bound all through their lives, but some were only briefly bound, and some were bound only until their marriage. Footbinding was most common among women whose work involved domestic crafts and those in urban areas; it was also more common in northern China where it was widely practised by women of all social classes, but less so in parts of southern China such as Guangdong and Guangxi where it was largely a practice of women in the provincial capitals or among the gentry.
Manchu women, as well as Mongol and Chinese women in the Eight Banners, did not bind their feet, and the most a Manchu woman might do was to wrap the feet tightly to give them a slender appearance. The Manchus, wanting to emulate the particular gait that bound feet necessitated, adapted their own form of platform shoes to cause them to walk in a similar swaying manner. These "flower bowl" () or "horse-hoof" shoes () have a platform generally made of wood two to six inches in height and fitted to the middle of the sole, or they have a small central tapered pedestal. Many Han Chinese in the Inner City of Beijing also did not bind their feet, and it was reported in the mid-1800s that around 50-60% of non-banner women had unbound feet. Bound feet nevertheless became a significant differentiating marker between Han women and Manchu or other banner women.
The Hakka people however were unusual among Han Chinese in not practicing foot binding at all. Most non-Han Chinese people, such as the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans, did not bind their feet; however, some non-Han ethnic groups did. Foot binding was practised by the Hui Muslims in Gansu Province, the Dungan Muslims, descendants of Hui from northwestern China who fled to central Asia, were also seen practicing foot binding up to 1948. In southern China, in Guangzhou, 19th century Scottish scholar James Legge noted a mosque that had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it constituted violating the creation of God.
The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 9. Binding usually started during the winter months since the feet were more likely to be numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.
First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Cotton bandages, 3 m long and 5 cm wide (10 ft by 2 in), were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.
The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch of the foot was forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole. The binding was pulled so tightly that the girl could not move her toes at all and the ends of the binding cloth were then sewn so that the girl could not loosen it.
The girl's broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injury, and the nails carefully and meticulously trimmed. When unbound, the broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl's feet were often beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. The feet were also soaked in a concoction that caused any necrotic flesh to fall off.
Immediately after this procedure, the girl's broken toes were folded back under and the feet were rebound. The bindings were pulled even tighter each time the girl's feet were rebound. This unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible (for the rich at least once daily, for poor peasants two or three times a week), with fresh bindings. It was generally an elder female member of the girl's family or a professional foot binder who carried out the initial breaking and ongoing binding of the feet. It was considered preferable to have someone other than the mother do it, as she might have been sympathetic to her daughter's pain and less willing to keep the bindings tight.
For most the bound feet eventually became numb. However, once a foot had been crushed and bound, attempting to reverse the process by unbinding was painful, and the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain all over again.
The most common problem with bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes, for this reason, the girl's toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that the circulation in the feet was faulty, and the circulation to the toes was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal and were likely to gradually worsen and lead to infected toes and rotting flesh. The necrosis of the flesh would also initially give off a foul odor, and later the smell may come from various microorganisms that colonized the folds.
If the infection in the feet and toes entered the bones, it could cause them to soften, which could result in toes dropping off; however, this was seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were more fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury and introduce infection deliberately. Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from foot-binding, and a surviving girl was more at risk for medical problems as she grew older. It is thought that as many as 10% of girls may have died from gangrene and other infections due to footbinding.
At the beginning of the binding, many of the foot bones would remain broken, often for years. However, as the girl grew older, the bones would begin to heal. Even after the foot bones had healed, they were prone to re-breaking repeatedly, especially when the girl was in her teenage years and her feet were still soft. Bones in the girls' feet would often be deliberately broken again in order to further change the size or shape of the feet. This was especially the case with the toes, as small toes were especially desirable. Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls, since they could not balance securely on their feet, and were less able to rise to their feet from a sitting position. Other issues that might arise from foot binding included paralysis and muscular atrophy.
Western travelers to China often reported on footbinding, and Western reactions have varied over time. The interpretive models used include fashion (where the Chinese customs are compared to the inexplicable patterns of Western women's fashion); seclusion (sometimes evaluated as morally superior to the gender mingling in the West); perversion (the practice imposed by men with sexual perversions), inexplicable deformation, child abuse, and extreme cultural traditionalism. In the late 20th century some feminists introduced positive overtones, arguing that it gave women a sense of mastery over their bodies, and pride in their beauty.
Before footbinding was practised in China, admiration for small feet already existed as demonstrated by the Tang dynasty tale of Ye Xian written around 850 by Duan Chengshi. This tale of a girl who lost her shoe and then married a king who sought the owner of the shoe as only her foot was small enough to fit the shoe contains elements of the European story of Cinderella, and is thought to be one of its antecedents. For many, the bound feet were an enhancement to a woman's beauty and made her movement more dainty, and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage. The desirability varies with the size of the feet – the perfect bound feet and the most desirable (called "golden lotuses") would be around 3 Chinese inches (around 4 inches (10 cm) in Western measurement) or smaller, while those larger may be called "silver lotuses" (4 Chinese inches) or "iron lotuses" (5 Chinese inches or larger and the least desirable for marriage). The belief that footbinding made women more desirable to men is widely used as an explanation for the spread and persistence of footbinding.
Some also considered bound feet to be intensely erotic, and Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet. Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny "lotus shoes" and wrappings. According to Robert van Gulik, the bound feet were also considered the most intimate part of a woman's body; in erotic art of the Qing to Song periods where the genitalia may be shown, the bound feet were never depicted uncovered. Howard Levy however suggests that the barely revealed bound foot may also only function as an initial tease.
An erotic effect of the bound feet was the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. Women with such deformed feet avoided placing weight on the front of the foot and tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, women who had undergone foot-binding would walk in a cautious and unsteady manner. Some men found the smell of the bound feet attractive, and some also apparently believed that bound feet would cause layers of folds to develop in the vagina, and that the thighs would become sensuously heavier and the vagina tighter. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud considered footbinding to be a "perversion that corresponds to foot fetishism".
A common argument is that the revival of Confucianism as Neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty resulted in the decline of the status of women, and that in addition to promoting the seclusion of women and the cult of widow chastity, it also contributed to the development of footbinding. According to Robert van Gulik, the prominent Song Confucian scholar Zhu Xi stressed the inferiority of women as well as the need to keep men and women strictly separate. It was claimed by Lin Yutang among others, probably based on an oral tradition, that Zhu Xi also promoted footbinding in Fujian as a way of encouraging chastity among women, that by restricting their movement it would help keep men and women separate. However, historian Patricia Ebrey suggests that this story might be fictitious.
Some Confucian moralists in fact disapproved of the erotic associations of footbinding, and unbound women were also praised. The Neo-Confucian Cheng Yi was said to be against footbinding and his family and descendants did not bind their feet. Modern Confucian scholars such as Tu Weiming also dispute any causal link between neo-Confucianism and footbinding. It has been noted that Confucian doctrine in fact prohibits mutilation of the body as people should not "injure even the hair and skin of the body received from mother and father". It is however argued that such injunction applies less to women, rather it is meant to emphasize the sacred link between sons and their parents. Furthermore, it is argued that Confucianism institutionalized the family system in which women are called upon to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family, a system that fostered such practice.
Historian Dorothy Ko proposed that footbinding may be an expression of the Confucian ideals of civility and culture in the form of correct attire or bodily adornment, and that footbinding was seen as a necessary part of being feminine as well as being civilized. Footbinding was often classified in Chinese encyclopedia as clothing or a form of bodily embellishment rather than mutilation; one from 1591 for example placed footbinding in a section on "Female Adornments" that included hairdos, powders, and ear-piercings. According to Ko, the perception of footbinding as a civilised practice may be evinced from a Ming dynasty account that mentioned a proposal to "entice [the barbarians] to civilize their customs" by encouraging footbinding among their womenfolk. The practice was also carried out only by women on girls, and it served to emphasize the distinction between male and female, an emphasis that began from an early age. Anthropologist Fred Blake argued that the practice of footbinding was a form of discipline undertaken by women themselves, and perpetuated by women on their daughters, so as to inform their daughters of their role and position in society, and to support and participate in the neo-Confucian way of being civilized.
Foot binding is often seen by feminists as an oppressive practice against women who were victims of a sexist culture. It is also widely seen as a form of violence against women. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, as they became largely restricted to their homes. The early Chinese feminist Qiu Jin, who underwent the painful process of unbinding her own bound feet, attacked footbinding and other traditional practices. She argued that women, by retaining their small bound feet, made themselves subservient as it would mean women imprisoning themselves indoors. She believed that women should emancipate themselves from oppression, that girls can ensure their independence through education, and that they should develop new mental and physical qualities fitting for the new era. The ending of the practice is seen as a significant event in the process of female emancipation in China.
Historian Dorothy Ko has argued that these feminists have mistakenly imposed late 20th century middle-class Western ideals of individualism and agency on a highly traditional culture. For example, they assume that the practice represented a woman's individual freedom to enjoy sexuality, despite lack of evidence. 
Some scholars such as Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates reject the theories that bound feet in China were considered more beautiful, or that it was a means of male control over women, a sign of class status, or a chance for women to marry well. They argued that foot binding was important in work, and can be seen as a way by mothers to tie their daughters down, train them in handwork and keep them close at hand.
It has been argued that while the practice started out as a fashion, it persisted because it became an expression of Han identity after the Mongols invaded China in 1279, and later the Manchus' conquest in 1644, as it was then practised only by Han women. During the Qing Dynasty, attempts were made by the Manchus to ban the practice but failed, and it has been argued the attempts at banning may have in fact led to a spread of the practice among Han Chinese in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The bound foot has played a prominent part in many media works, both Chinese and non-Chinese, modern and traditional. These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumors or supposition. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931), the accounts are relatively neutral, implying a respect for Chinese culture and assuming that it is not the role of outsiders to promote reform. Sometimes the accounts seem intended to rouse like-minded Chinese and foreign opinion to abolish the custom, and sometimes the accounts imply condescension or contempt for China.