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Bound feet were considered beautiful, even erotic.

Foot binding was the Chinese custom that started in the Tang Dynasty, 10th century and prevailed for over a millennium. It was a practice first carried out on young girls to restrict their normal growth and make their feet as small as possible. Feet altered by foot-binding were known as lotus feet, and the shoes made for these feet were known as lotus shoes. Small feet were considered an attractive quality; the effects of the process were painful and permanent resulting in disfigured feet making it difficult for women to carry out their daily activities. It was a method that was widely used to distinguish the upper-class girl from others. Later the lower class women started practising foot binding to improve their social prospects. The practice of foot-binding would continue right up to the early 20th century CE.


The tradition for foot binding is believed to have started in the 10th century by a dancer and consort called Yao Niang. She danced on her toes inside a six-foot-high lotus flower made of gold and decorated with jewels, pearls and silk tassels. She wore silk socks over which she wound long, narrow bands of silk. She was much admired by Emperor Li Yu and as a result, women envied her and wanted to copy her small feet. The binding of feet was then replicated by other upper-class women, and the practice spread across the nation.

Chinese women wanted their feet to look small like a lotus bud and by the 19th century, nearly all women in China had bound feet or were ridiculed if they had big feet. Women wore smaller and smaller shoes to forcibly reduce the size of their feet.

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The Process

Chinese girls had their feet bound typically from the age of five to eight. Prayers and offerings were offered to the Tiny-Footed Maiden Goddess. The process was usually carried out during winters when girls' feet are numb to the pain of binding. The older women of the family or by a professional foot-binder took the feet of a young girl, plunged them into hot water and clipped her toenails short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. The big toe was left facing forwards while the four smaller toes were bent under the foot. In this position, the feet were tightly bound using long strips of cloth, which then restricted any future growth and gave the foot a pronounced arch. This often resulted in one or more toes being lost or having infections in the foot or gangrene.

The effects of foot-binding Feet of a Chinese woman, showing the crippling effect of foot-bindingWikimedia Commons

Small feet were eroticized and were believed to find a better husband. The smaller the feet the more attractive they were considered and it became a distinct mark of elegance. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a "golden lotus." It was respectable to have four-inch feet as a silver lotus but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. Women were forced to take small and light steps with their bound feet. As women's mobility became restricted because of their crippled feet performing everyday menial tasks took great effort. Through this practice, every aspect of women's beauty was intimately bound up with pain.

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Criticism and Demise

Oppositions to foot binding have been witnessed by some Chinese writers in the 18th century. The new Republic of China government banned foot binding in 1912, though the ban was not actively implemented. Hence, the practice continued in parts. Even though the practice is utterly rejected in China now the last shoe factory, the Zhiqian Shoe Factory, that made lotus shoes was closed in 1999. The practice survived for thousands of years in parts of the country because of women's emotional investment in the practice.

Keywords: Footbinding, China, Immobility, Women


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