Foot binding – Part 1/3: A search for perfection

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.


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Indian Homemaker
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 03:24:02

    High heels and genital mutilation are also forms of the same.

    • Fem
      Mar 18, 2012 @ 06:28:42

      I intend to write about their origins too, IHM. It is indeed unbelievable how women have been convinced to do the most awful things just to get married.

  2. scribblehappy
    Mar 19, 2012 @ 06:34:40

    Through the ages, women have been going (made to go) to absurd lengths just to be seen as sexually attractive by men and the foot-binding practiced in Ancient China has to be amongst the most horrifying instances of the same. All the more poignant when you realize that it was the parents, for the most part, who subjected their little daughters to this barbarity, effectively crippling them for life. All because men in that part of the world, for some strange reason, had begun to find the sight of small feet erotic.
    Looking forward to the sequels to this post.

  3. agrajag
    Mar 20, 2012 @ 12:01:39

    It is a general thing across time and cultures that being considered attractive is a lot about signalling that you are, to put it bluntly, rich. Bound feet demonstrate that you come from a family who can afford to have females not doing physical labour.

    There are many parallell threads here in Europe, for example in medieval times poor people spent a lot of their time working outdoors, which exposed their skin to the sun and made them tan. At that time, being pale was considered beautiful, and women from the upper classes would go to great lengths to avoid exposing their skin to the sun, carrying small parasols with them for shade when they ventured outdoors.

    Fast forward a few generations, and the poor are now working long shifts indoors in factories, while the rich can afford to spend leisure-time outdoors or going on vacation to exotic, frequently sunny, places. And suddenly being *tanned* is considered a sign of great beauty.

    It’s the same for smoking, for body-weight, for being fit and strong, for having long fingernails and a hundred other things, big and small.

    • Fem
      Mar 20, 2012 @ 18:53:22

      Very true, agrajag. Most times, in spite of wealth, the lives of rich upper class women is tougher and more restricted than the poorer, lower classes.

      • agrajag
        Mar 21, 2012 @ 07:07:55

        More restricted, yes. Tougher ? I’m not sure I can agree to that, unless I misunderstand you somehow.

      • Fem
        Mar 21, 2012 @ 09:15:10

        In the long run, yes. Life becomes tougher for an upper class woman when her protector dies, leaving her without money. It happened far far more often than we think. The women, with neither skills nor experience fared even worse than their lower class sisters.

      • agrajag
        Mar 21, 2012 @ 11:08:00

        This is true, I did misunderstand you then, my apologies. The misunderstanding is that I would consider a woman who used to be upper-class, but somehow (for example because the husband dies) falls, to now be part of the lower classes. And yes, when that happens, her lack of skills that are useful in that social strata makes her even worse off than those who where always poor.

  4. Smitha
    Mar 27, 2012 @ 20:12:40

    Goodness! The extents to which women had to go to get married. And the saddest part is learn how crippled they are – crippled for life, if they happen become widows…

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