Foot binding practice in China

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In China, it was a common practice to bind women’s feet and turn them into a “three inch golden lotuses” or ‘San Cun Jin Lian’ for about ten decades. The rank was reduced to ‘silver’ in cases where feet could only be shrunk to four inches. Small feet were considered to be the ultimate sign of beauty and women’s only way to riches through marriage (Brady).Successive generations of Chinese women had endured the pain in the name of beauty. In this process, women’s feet were systematically broken and reshaped to make them as small as three inches. The sight of three inch feet brings the image of extreme torture and pain these women had endured during the process. Here, the question arise that why these women had to comply with such a bizarre custom and what inspired them to pass it to generations. In this research paper, I try to explore the reasons behind foot binding practice in China.

The practice of foot-binding dates back to the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and continued to more than 1000 years(Brady).Some evidences state that it started in T’ang Dynasty(618-906) and gradually spread during Song Dynasty. During Ming period (1368-1644) and the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) the practice flourished through overwhelming majority of Chinese women (Crites). There are several legends that account for the inception of foot binding custom in China. One narrates that the concubine of a Chinese prince Yao Niang used to walk so gracefully that she seemed to be “skimming over the top of golden lilies”. Later “lily footed woman” or bound feet woman became an epitome of beauty. The other legend goes like Yao Niang was forced to bind her feet to make them appear like new moon. Third legend narrates that women started to bind their feet in order to show their sympathies with a princess suffering from club feet (Crites). In another account, Chinese ruler Li Yu (961-975) is often associated with romanticizing foot-binding who fell in love with a dancer who bounded her feet to appear like a new moon and performed a ‘lotus dance’(Brady). However, it seems to be a myth since it is nearly impossible to walk with bound feet, let alone dancing. Despite all the legends associated with the practice of foot binding, its real origin is still unclear. However, its impact on ancient Chinese society is evident from the massive number of women who followed this practice. One of the purposes of foot binding is considered to stop wives and concubines of the rich from straying or running away from beating. During that time, Confucian ideas of male superiority were prevalent and considered to be crucial for maintaining social order (Crites).

A British priest started anti-foot binding movement in Shanghai during 1874.However, the practice was not banned until 1912 as a result of Sun Yat-Sen Revolution, and by 1915 government started to impose fines on people who bound their feet. Approximately two million Chinese women bound their feet and the practice continued in some village despite being illegal (Brady).

During 19th century, feet binding flourished in rural and urban areas alike, urban women associated it with wealth and class while rural women felt it a way to marry rich man. According to an estimate, about 40 to 50 percent Chinese women bound their feet during the 19th century, however, in upper class the number was nearly 100 percent (Brady). The practice started as a luxury among the rich and it made them more reliant on others and less useful. It proved to be very hard for poor Chinese people because they needed women to work around the house. Despite that, it became a prerequisite for marriage. Even it was considered to be a just reason to call off marriage if man founds that woman didn’t have bound feet. It obligated even labor class to push their daughters into binding; otherwise the girls had to stay unmarried for the rest of their lives. In many instances, when poor families could no longer afford their useless daughters, they made them work in the fields with bounded foot (Crites).

Crites further explains that with bounded feet, it was painful to walk because woman had to put all of the body weight on heels and totter as she walks. In addition to be regarded as beautiful, bounded feet became a symbol of chastity. It was due to the fact that bounded women were restricted to home, and once the feet are bounded, it can’t be unlocked just like chastity belt. When it comes to sexual aspect of foot binding, bounded feet became the prime erotic zone. The feelings associated with bounded feet were similar to that of a young and firm bosom. Moreover, they believe that it made women walk in a way that strengthen vagina and make it narrow. They also believed that small feet have more concentrated nerve endings that make it major erogenous zone. Poetry and other writings from that era reveals that bounded feet were a source of great infatuation even an obsession associated with perversion for small feet. There were large number of pornographic paintings and engravings that show men fondling with women’s feet. Therefore, it does not seem surprising that men were so adamant of their wives to have bounded feet.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Brady, Tara. “Meet the last of China’s women to have her feet bound: 102-year-old subjected to ancient custom had her toes broken when she was just two-years-old.”mailonline.23 September.2013.Web. 28 May.2014.
  2. Crites, A. James. “Chinese Foot binding.”anglefire.Rhapsody,25 October .1995.Web.28 May.2014.
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