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Chinese foot binding is the practice of modifying a woman's feet to make them about 3 inches (7 cm) long. It was once considered erotic and beautiful, though has since been seen as a form of female subjugation. The practice started in the 7th century CE, and despite various calls for reforms, was only banned in the early 1900s. The physical process of footbinding was extremely painful, and usually led to a lifelong disability. Though the practice was primarily restricted to Han ethnic Chinese women, an estimated 2 billion women had their feet bound in the 19th century alone.
The purpose of Chinese foot binding was primarily cosmetic. The tiny feet, called lotus feet, were considered extremely erotic, as was the gait they produced. Women with small feet were seen as delicate, in need of male protection, and aristocratic, since they were unable to do many of the things a servant would do easily. The feet also became a symbol of chastity, since they left the woman unable to go out of the house on her own. Poorer families would often bind the feet of only their eldest daughter so that she could possibly marry up in society.
Women had to start binding their feet very young for the technique to work properly. Most mothers had their daughters' feet bound when they were two to five years old. She, a sister, or a professional foot binder would first soak the foot in a mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften it, and then bend the toes under until they broke. After this, she would break the arch of the foot, and then wrap it tightly in bandages that were also soaked in a blood and herb mixture until the foot formed a triangular shape.
As the bones set, the foot would be periodically unwrapped, massaged, and cleaned, and the toenails were trimmed. Since the circulation of the foot was cut off by the bandages, many girls had foot infections, lost toenails, or had toes fall off altogether. After any dead tissue was removed, the foot would then be immediately re-wrapped.
Women with bound feet were unable to put much weight on their feet, and had to walk on their heels. This gave them a tottering gait which was considered very attractive by some. Their feet were usually infected, since it was impossible to cut the bent-under toenails, which could then pierce the skin. It was also very difficult to wash in between the folded skin of the foot, which led to the growth of bacteria. This made the feet smell very bad and sometimes produce discharge, which is why most women with bound feet never took off their shoes.
The deformity of their gait also left women prone to falling and hip and spine problems. One study from the University of San Francisco on osteoporosis in China found that women with these feet were almost twice as likely to experience falls, and were also more likely to have difficulty rising from chairs. They also had more difficulty squatting, which was particularly important for using the restroom before Western-style toilets came to China. These limitations were particularly burdensome for women who had to perform manual labor.
The practice of Chinese foot binding began during the rule of Li Yu when the emperor became attracted to a concubine who had bound her feet tightly for a dance routine. It was originally confined to the imperial court, but later spread to cities and villages. The first calls for reform came a few centuries later in the mid-1600s, and continued periodically until 1912, when it was banned outright. Despite the ban, some women continued to bind their feet secretly, though those who got caught were subject to a fine. The practice finally died out by the 1950s, due to a series of anti-foot binding campaigns from the Nationalist and Communist governments.
Other cultures had and have similarly deforming practices to Chinese foot binding. Skull modification, in which the skull was pressed until it elongated, was practiced among many cultures, including the Incans, Huns, and Australian Aborigines. Many women in European countries and the US deformed their skeletons to the point of injuring their organs by wearing very tight corsets. In modern times, female genital mutilation was and is practiced in many countries in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the historical reason for foot binding in Chinese culture?
Foot binding in Chinese culture was historically associated with beauty and social status. It was believed that small feet, known as "lotus feet," were more attractive and feminine. According to historical accounts, the practice may have originated among court dancers in the Song Dynasty and then spread as a symbol of elegance and refinement among the upper class. Over time, it became a widespread custom that signified a woman's eligibility for marriage and was often a prerequisite for finding a husband from a good family.
How did foot binding affect the health and mobility of Chinese women?
Foot binding severely affected the health and mobility of Chinese women. The process involved breaking the arch of the foot and bending the toes under the sole, which often led to chronic pain, infection, and difficulty in walking. According to medical studies, women with bound feet were more prone to falls and had limited mobility, which impacted their ability to perform daily activities and contributed to a sedentary lifestyle, potentially leading to other health issues.
At what age did girls typically begin the foot binding process, and how long did it last?
Girls typically began the foot binding process between the ages of 4 and 9, as their feet were more pliable at a young age. The process could last for several years, as the feet were bound tightly with cloth strips to prevent them from growing normally. The bindings were often tightened every day and the feet were soaked in a mixture of herbs and animal blood to facilitate the binding process. The practice continued until the foot was permanently deformed, usually by the time the girl reached early adolescence.
When and why did foot binding eventually come to an end in China?
Foot binding began to decline in the early 20th century due to changing social conditions and the influence of reformers who saw it as a barbaric practice. The Chinese government officially banned foot binding in 1912, but it continued in some rural areas for several decades. The practice largely ended by the 1950s, as China's new Communist government enforced the ban and promoted gender equality. The shift in societal values towards women's rights and health also contributed to the end of foot binding.
Are there any lasting cultural impacts of foot binding in modern China?
While foot binding is no longer practiced, its cultural impact can still be felt in modern China. The legacy of foot binding has influenced contemporary Chinese beauty standards and the perception of women's roles in society. It also serves as a reminder of the historical oppression of women and the lengths to which they went to conform to societal expectations. Museums and literature continue to document and reflect on the practice, ensuring that the lessons from this period of history are not forgotten.