Her powdered pink face,
Prettier than a peach;
Her twin golden lotuses,
Perfect fit for my hands.
I’ll take you home as my bride,
In a coloured sedan chair.
Foot binding was a custom practiced in China, Taiwan and Korea and originated sometime in the 900s A.D. The practice was prevalent among the upper class women of the Han dynasty, who vied with each other to get their daughters’ feet bound as small as possible. It is said that a three inch foot was the most erotic and appealing to men, and such a young woman who manages to achieve this target might look towards a secure future as the wife of a rich nobleman. Small feet were not only beautiful and erotic, they showcased a woman’s only talent. Unable to move about freely, her feet became the focal point of her body.
Before the advent of Confucianism, Chinese women were movers and shakers in their own right in many aspects of social life. As Confucianism became more widely accepted and got firmly entrenched in Chinese society, women began to be marginalised and foot binding came into vogue. While it was not a universal practice, there was no denying that those who could afford to bind their daughters’ feet, did so.
However, not every woman in Chinese society bound their feet. Very poor families who needed their women to do physical labour for survival skipped this practice. It was forbidden for Manchu women to bind their feet after the Manchu rule started in 1644. Hakka women also were spared the excruciating pain of this custom and remained mobile. Since the Hakka were immigrants and generally poorer in comparison with other ethnicities, the women were required to do hard physical work for survival, and hence spared the humiliation and the pain.
There are many reasons for the start of the custom that went on to cripple upper class Han women for a thousand years and more. Dorothy Ko describes foot binding as
a device inscribing the Confucian ideal of a centripetal woman and as a central event in the development of a women’s culture in the boudoir as a means women employed to cater to the erotic fantasies of men
This also meant that a woman’s feet, like her sexuality, were reserved for the husband. And only for her husband. It enforced chastity in women by restricting their movements. Men sometimes stole women’s shoes to humiliate them. There are even instances where they took shoes for masturbating. The bound foot of a woman was also accompanied by social rituals that completely had her homebound. The practice soon led to a deep divide between the rich and poor women, because the poor women could not afford to cripple themselves for the sake of beauty. Their hands and more importantly, feet, were required for physical work. This resulted in large feet becoming a symbol of peasant and poor women and looked down upon. The practice enforced dependency in women, and bound women had no future to speak of if their husbands abandoned them. Some of them ended up by begging on the streets because they were not fit for any kind of physical work nor educated enough for any other kind of work. Most of their time was spent in making and embroidering their own shoes.
There is no exact proof for when foot binding became the rage. There are a few legends about it, and we do not know which is correct. One of the accounts says that footbinding goes as far back as 2100 BC. The founder of the Xia dynasty in China, Da Yu, married a magic fox woman and she had tiny feet, which made foot binding popular. Doesn’t sound likely! The most likely date for the origin of this practice was sometime during the Song dynasty.
There seem to be a few contradictory accounts of the origin I think is the likeliest. It all had to do with a woman called Yao Niang, who seemed to walk really gracefully like “skimming over the top of golden lilies”. She was a concubine of the then ruler, Li Yu, and once danced for him enchantingly on a golden lotus stage. At this time her feet was wrapped in silk cloth (but not bound). And hence the Golden Lotus became a euphemism for bound feet. Her success with the King led to the other ladies binding their feet, soon giving rise to a more torturous and horrible custom than dancing like a lily on a golden stage. The women with bound feet would hardly be able to walk properly, leave alone dance!
Mother, Mother, it’s her I must wed,
Her flowered high heels are unparalleled.
While I’m penniless, it’s true,
To have her I’ll sell all we’ve held.