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Chinese Foot Binding Essay, Research Paper


As I read the newspaper story, my eyes widen with every word, According to the National Institute of Mental Health there are over 5 million people in the United States suffering with eating disorders. 1% of all North American teenagers have eating disorders. 10% of these teenagers will die. People struggling with anorexia are among those whose health are at great risk ( www.planet-therapy.com) And then I see a picture of a young girl, nothing but bones and skin, looking wasted away. I ask myself, What won t people do for beauty ?

They say, True beauty comes from within. However true this statement may be, in almost every society throughout history, women have been required to undergo major and often painful physical alterations in the name of beauty and social status. Perhaps one of the most agonizing beatifications in all of history is the Chinese tradition of foot binding.

Foot binding is an ancient tradition that involves the reshaping of the woman s feet to achieve a smaller foot. Accompanied by unimaginable pain and crippling limitations, Chinese foot binding is a testament to how far humans will go to be beautiful. As with most other beautification processes, such as ear piercing or tattooing, Chinese foot binding has significant cultural and social implications. In addition, using modern technology, we can also see the physiological effects of foot binding.

The History

Foot binding began in the late T’ang Dynasty (618-906) and it gradually spread through the upper class during the Song Dynasty (960-1297). During the Ming period (1368-1644) and the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) the custom of foot binding spread through the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population (Mo-ch n, 65). It began with the emperor Li Yu of the T ang Dynasty who, acting on his fetish for small feet, instructed his favorite concubine, Lovely Maiden, to bind her feet in silk cloth in order to make the tips of them look like a crescent moon. She was then instructed to dance for him in front of a six-foot lotus constructed entirely from gold and decorated with pearls and precious stones. This is where the term that described the woman s foot as a, golden lotus, came from (Chinn, 38). Pretty soon, word spread from the palace to the nobility, which was then passed down to the lower classes (who did their best to imitate) (Chinn, 38). The fetish of one emperor spread to become a fetish of his whole dynasty. In 1644, the Manchurians tried to ban foot binding, but never were able to enforce it (Mo-ch n, 65). The Manchurian women never practiced foot binding but the Chinese women of Han descent continued with the tradition (Mo-ch n, 65). With the turn of the 20th century, China began to be scolded by the modern world, which viewed the custom as barbaric. Feminist groups also began to pop up all over China, speaking out against foot binding (Mo-ch n, 65). The Empress Dowager Tz u-his in 1902 issued a decree banning the practice though the practice continued well into the 1920 s (Mo-ch n). Still, foot binding persisted within traditional families residing in rural areas (Mo-ch n). The more China became developed, the more pressure the outside world exerted on them to ban the old fashioned custom (Mo-ch n). The Chinese Xinhua News Agency announced, in 1998, that the last factory to manufacture shoes for bound-feet women in Harbin, China, had ended production (Chinn, 38). Finally, after a millennia, China has changed its customs and bound feet are rarely seen anywhere except on old Chinese women born in the early 20th century.

The Process

The goal of a bound foot is to reduce both its length and width. How can this possibly be achieved? The procedure involved taking a piece of cloth, preferably about ten feet long and two inches wide, and wrapping the foot. One end was placed on the inside of the arch, and from there it was carried over the small toes so as to force the toes in and towards the sole. The large toes were left unbound. The bandage was then wrapped around the heel so forcefully that the heel and toes were drawn close together. The process was the repeated from the beginning until the entire piece of cloth had been applied. The bones in the foot would eventually shatter after walking on it and they would heal incorrectly due to the bandage. It would take about two years for the foot to reach its model of three inches. Often, a girl would unwrap her feet after a few days because of the enormous amount of pain and pressure against her foot. This would cause the shrinking process to take longer and the mother would just have to redo it again. After a few months, the flesh of the foot would become rotten and portions of it would slough off from the sole; sometimes one or more toes dropped off. Perfuming of the feet and shoes was necessary to veil the gagging odor of rotten flesh. It wasn t uncommon for young girls to be beaten by their mothers for crying and wincing at the pain the bandages caused. They were actually walking on the outside of the toes, which had been bent under. This would cause the feet to become bloody and puss filled and the circulation to the foot was virtually stopped. The feet would then have to be unwrapped and cleaned only to be bound again one hour later. Once the feet were fleshy and rotten, incredibly small shoes called lotus shoes could shape them. These shoes were hard and the foot had to shoved into them with force for it to fit. As time passed, the girl would be given smaller shoes to shove her feet into until they finally reached its model size. (Jackson, 22-24)

One can hardly imagine the pain and paralyzing anguish associated with such a process; and to think that for nearly an entire millennia, almost every girl in China had this tortuous procedure done makes one grasp the true implication society can put on beauty. The following is the shocking testimony of a girl who had her feet bound at age seven. It describes the social pressure and physical pain that comes with bound feet. I was born in a certain district in western Hunan Province, at the end of the Manchu dynasty. In, accordance with custom, at the age of seven I began binding. I had witnessed the pain of my cousins, and in the year it was to begin was very much frightened. That autumn, distress befell me. One day prior my mother told me: ‘You are now seven, just at the right age for binding. If we wait your foot will harden, increasing the pain. You should have started in the spring, but because you were weak we waited till now. Girls in other families have already completed the process. We start tomorrow. I will do this for you lightly and so that it won’t hurt; what daughter doesn’t go through this difficulty?’ She then gave me fruit to eat, showed me a new pair of phoenix-tip shoes, and beguiled me with these words: ‘Only with bound feet can you wear such beautiful shoes. Otherwise you’ll become a large-footed barbarian and everyone will laugh at and feel ashamed of you.” I felt moved by, a desire to be beautiful and became steadfast in determination, staying awake all night. I got up early the next morning everything had already been prepared Mother had me sit on a stool by the bed. She threaded a needle and placed it in my hair, cut off a piece of alum and put it alongside the binding cloth and the flowered shoes. She then turned and closed the bedroom door. She first soaked my feet in a pan of hot water, then wiped them, and cut the toenails with a small scissors. She then took my right foot in her hands and repeatedly massaged it in the direction of the plantar. She also sprinkled alum between my toes. She gave me a pen point to hold in my hands because of the belief that my feet might then become as pointed as it was. Later she took a cloth three feet long and two inches, wide, grasped my right foot, and pressed down the four smaller toes in the direction of the plantar. She joined them together, bound them once, and passed the binding from the heel to the foot surface and then to the plantar. She did this five times and then sewed the binding together with thread. To prevent it from getting loosened, she tied a slender cotton thread from the tip of the foot to its center. She did the same thing with the left foot and forced my feet into flowered shoes which were slightly smaller than the feet were. The tips of the shoes were adorned with threads in the shape of grain. There was a ribbon affixed to the mouth of the shoe and fastened on the heel. She ordered me to get down from the bed and walk, saying that if I didn’t the crooked-shaped foot would be seriously injured. When I first touched the ground, I felt complete loss of movement; after a few trials, only the toes hurt greatly. Both feet became feverish at night and hurt from the swelling. Except for walking, I sat by the k’ang (bath). Mother rebound my feet weekly, each time more tightly than the last. I became more and more afraid. I tried to avoid the binding by hiding in a neighbor’s house. If I loosened the bandage, mother would scold me for not wanting to look nice. After half a year, the tightly bound toes began to uniformly face the plantar. The foot became more pointed daily; after a year, the toes began to putrefy. Corns began to appear and thicken, and for a long time no improvement was visible. Mother would remove the bindings and lance the corns with a needle to get rid of the hard core. I feared this, but mother grasped my legs so that I couldn’t move. Father betrothed me at the age of nine to a neighbor named Chao and I went to their house to serve as a daughter-in-law in the home of my future husband. My mother-in-law bound my feet much more tightly than mother ever had, saying that I still hadn’t achieved the standard. She beat me severely if I cried; if I unloosened the binding, I was beaten until my body was covered with bruises. Also, because my feet were somewhat fleshy, my mother-in-law insisted that the foot must become inflamed to get the proper results. Day and night, my feet were washed in a medicinal water; within a few washings I felt special pain. Looking down, I saw that every toe but the big one was inflamed and deteriorated. Mother-in-law said that this was all to the good. I had to be beaten with fists before I could bear to remove the bindings, which were congealed with pus and blood. To get them loose, such force had to be used that the skin often peeled off, causing further bleeding. The stench was hard to bear, while I felt the pain in my very insides. My body trembled with agitation. Mother-in-law was not only unmoved but she placed tiles inside the binding in order to hasten the inflammation process. She was deaf to my childish cries. Every other day, the binding was made tighter and sewn up, and each time slightly smaller shoes had to be worn. The sides of the shoes were hard, and I could only get into them by using force. I was compelled to walk on them in the courtyard, they were called distance-walking shoes. I strove to cling to life, suffering indescribable pain. Being in an average family, I had to go to the well and a pound the mortar unaided. Faulty blood circulation caused my feet to become insensible in winter. At night, I tried to warm them by the k’ang, but this caused extreme pain. The alternation between frost and thawing caused me to lose one toe on my right foot. Deterioration of the flesh was such that within a year my feet had become as pointed as new bamboo shoots, pointing upwards like a red chestnut. The foot surface was slightly convex, while the four bean-sized toes were deeply imbedded in the plantar like a string of cowry shells. They were only a slight distance from the heel of the foot. The plantar was so deep that several coins could be placed in it without difficulty. The large toes faced upwards, while the place on the right foot where the little toe had deteriorated away pained at irregular intervals. It left an ineffaceable scar. My feet were only three inches long, at the most. Relatives and friends praised them, little realizing the cisterns of tears and blood that they had caused. My husband was delighted with them, but two years ago he departed this world. The family wealth dissipated, and I had to wander about, looking for work. That was how I came down to my present circumstances. I envy the modern woman. If I too had been born just a decade or so later, all of this pain could have been avoided. The lot of the natural-footed woman and mine is like that of heaven and hell. (Levy, 224-227)

The Social Implications

“Women from time immemorial and throughout the world showed a willingness to maim themselves to achieve male-defined standards of beauty and win love and admiration.” (Carlitz, 1)

Rotten flesh, puss filled shoes, hideously deformed feet these are not typical images of beauty. So what exactly did males see in these tortured feet? Chinese men associated bound feet with higher-status love and sex, using them in foreplay (Levy, 2). They preferred the small and delicate foot to the natural one for several reasons. It reminded them of a feminine goddess since it was so soft and light unlike a natural foot which was man-like and heavy. They also claimed that a woman with delicate feet smelled nicer then a woman with big feet. The reason for this was that woman with bound feet needed to put lotions and perfumes on them to get rid of the foul stench of dead meat. It was said that a man should never look at a woman s unbound feet because the thrill and mystery of the dainty foot would be lost. Instead, they were told to appreciate the, appearance of the foot in a shoe. (Levy, 2-3)

A woman s shoes were almost as sexual as their feet themselves. There were shoes for all occasions such as bed, funerals, birthdays, and marriages. Girls would have about twelve pairs of shoes for a dowry and also would give their mother in law two pairs of specially made shoes. In the Chinese culture, foot binding was considered an art of making living matter grandeur. (Pang-Mei, 10)

Oddly enough, the people who mutilated these girls were their mother or mother figure. They would start binding her feet between the age of six and eight. It was considered to be a very spiritual practice and was celebrated amongst the family (Rita, 15). One wonders how a mother could put her own daughter through so much pain. The answer lies in the social importance associated with the debilitating practice. One s class could often be determined by the size of the foot (Carlitz, N/A). The wealthier a girl was, the smaller her feet were. Upper class families had more money to spend on better binding cloth and fancier shoes for their daughters. There was no need for the girls to work, for the men in the family brought home enough money. The poorer families, however, could not afford to live off the salary of the man of the household, and so the wife also had to earn money though labor (Carlitz, N/A). Women with bound feet were handicapped so severely that they were limited in what kind of work they could perform. If a woman s feet were properly bound to the desirable size of three inches, then the woman could only walk short distances and even that required assistance. Running and other stresses on the foot were out of the question. Therefore it was only the rich nobles who could have their feet bound so tightly, for they weren t required to work. The poorer women would have loosely bound feet, and were looked down upon for their barbarous feet. The feet were also immensely important in arranging marriages (Carlitz, N/A). A man would rarely take a woman with unbound feet unless he was extremely poor. Even so, the whole marriage would be looked down upon as bad luck (Chinn, 38). The first thing that a mother-in-law did when she first met her future daughter-in-law was lift up her dress. If she saw that her feet were satisfactorily bound, then she put the dress down and smiled in approval. If she saw large feet, she threw the dress down in disapproval. This was considered to be the most humiliating thing that could have ever happen to a woman in China during that era (Chinn, 38). Such a harsh reality put immense pressure on the mother to bind her daughter s feet as tightly as possible. If the mother did not have the heart to put her daughter through all that pain, the daughter would grow up ashamed and unmarried and the mother would be considered to have a weak soul. Such was the pressure of the mother and explains why the custom was successfully practiced for so long Carlitz, N/A).

Why only women? The instance of men handicapping women to force them into social submission is not uncommon in any society or during any time in history. The man s responsibility was to support his family and to do any work or duties outside of the home. By rendering the woman s feet useless, they are immobile and virtual prisons of their house, where they depend solely on their husband. As a result, Chinese women were left with no purpose except to marry into a good family. Daughters had to learn that they carried the reputations of both their natal family and the family into which they married in the bind of their feet. (Mo-ch n, 78-80)

The Repercussions

The ancient Chinese custom of foot binding has caused severe life-long disability for many millions of elderly women, even in today s China. In November 1997, UC San Francisco released details of the first study on the consequences of foot binding. The research involved examining a randomly selected sample of 193 women in Beijing (93 at 80 years or older and 100 between 70 and 79 years). They found 38 percent of women in the 80s age group and 18 percent of those in the 70s age group had bound foot deformities. The study shows that women in the 80 years or older group with bound feet were more likely to have fallen during the previous year than women with normal feet (38 percent vs. 19 percent) and were less able to rise from a chair without assistance (43 percent vs. 26 percent). (Cummings, N/A)

According to lead author Steven R. Cummings, MD, UCSF professor of medicine and epidemiology and biostatistics, We also found that women with deformed feet were far less able to squat, an ability that is particularly important to toileting and other daily activities in China. In addition, the study found that women with bound feet had 5.1 percent lower hip bone density and 4.7 percent lower spine bone density than women with normal feet, putting them at greater risk of suffering hip or spine fractures. (Cummings, N/A)

Despite the difficulties we observed, women with bound feet did not have greater difficulty preparing meals, walking or climbing steps, Cummings says, adding that these women may have accommodated to their impairments or may be reluctant to complain. (Cummings, N/A)

Hopefully within one or two future generations, we will no longer see these debilitating effects on anyone.


Foot binding was a successful, thousand year old customary practice of the Chinese culture that did not die out until barely a century ago. It forced women to endure immense pain in the name of beauty and social status. The custom is truly an example of how much influence society has on our outlook of beauty.

From a purely anthropological view, we must not look at foot binding as either right or wrong, but as a custom that simply worked for the Chinese. Their social structure was such that men were to work and women were to stay home. Arranged marriages were the most important factor in a woman s life and a woman s wealth and status had to be judged by these marriages. Bound feet offered a way to visually separate the rich from the poor and helped enforce this social setting. For the Chinese, it was their way of keeping order.

Still, we can learn from this custom by using its example of society and beauty. This particular case study drastically shows how far a society can go in not only telling women how to be beautiful but forcing the issue as well. Beauty, something usually revered as a positive influence in society, can in reality cause major damage to the health of the population. Americans, in a most ethnocentric attitude, frown upon the custom of foot binding, accusing it of being disgustingly unbeautiful and barbaric and relish in the fact that such a custom doesn t exist in America. Yet, the gruesome statistics of Anorexia in America tell a different story, one not of foot torture but of starvation and death. And the pressure to be beautifully underweight still continues, painfully forcing one ideal of beauty on everyone. It took China nearly a thousand years for them to take into account what they were doing. Hopefully, the rest of the world will use its example so that others wont have to suffer beauty through pain.


1. Carlitz, Katherine.

http://www.sp.uconn.edu/ gwang/teaching/footbinding_in_traditional_china.htm

This web site offered information about the cultural significance of women suffering for beauty. The author made cross-cultural comparisons with the European corset and foot binding.

2. Chinn, Thomas. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and Its People. San

Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of American, 1989.

(pp.36-54) This book offered some information about the lower class Chinese who had their feet bound. I gave many details about the immigrants who came to San Francisco and lived there with bound feet.

3. Cummings, Steven R., Chinese Foot Binding. American Journal of Public Health,

October 19, 1997. (http://www.sfmuseum.org/chin/foot.html)

This is a study done by UCSF on the health problems of women who have bound feet. It offered plenty of statistics that greatly demonstrated the hardships that these women have. The lead author is Steven R. Cummings, MD, UCSF professor of medicine and epidemiology and biostatistics.

4. Jackson, Beverley. Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley California, 1997.

(pp.22-45). This is probably the most interesting of the sources, as it offered plenty of pictures of the slippers for bound feet.

5. Levy, Howard S., The Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Foot binding in China. Prometheus Books, New York, 1991.

(pp. 2, 4-6, 15, 36) The book talked a lot about the fascination men had with the bound foot. It surprised me how many different ways men revered and even used the foot (like in gambling games, drinking, sex, etc.).

6. Mo-ch n, Chang. Opposition to Foot Binding, in Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes, (ed. Yu-ning, Li), M. E. Sharpe, Inc., New York, 1992.

(pp. 60-80) I got most of my information about the history of foot binding from this book. It discussed the way the ancient custom died out and about the role of women in abolishment.

7. Pang-Mei, Natasha Chang. Bound Feet and Western Dress, pg. 6, Doubleday, New York, 1996.

(pp.10-11) This book had some interesting facts and pictures of bound feet. This book, like Thomas Chinn s Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and Its People, talked about the Chinese immigrants who lived in San Francisco with bound feet.

8. http://www.planet-therapy.com/problems/anorexia.html

This web sight had the anorexia statistics that I used in the introduction.

9. Rita, Aero. Things Chinese, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1980.

Things Chinese discussed the role of foot binding in the intricate social structure of the Chinese. It mainly focused on how foot binding was a way to reinforce the female gender role in society.


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