Foot binding – Part 2/3: The pain and the pleasure

A pair of tiny feet,
Two jugs of tears.
– Chinese ditty

There are seven categories that foot connoisseurs use to determine the beauty and eroticism of a bound foot. A foot, to have the desired effect, must have all these seven attributes: small, slim, pointed, arched, fragrant, soft and straight. Achieving this is not easy, and takes time and effort, not to mention pain.

Girls as young as five or six years old went through footbinding. It was imperative to catch them at an early age because then the bones were still soft and could be moulded properly. The later you leave to bind the feet, the larger your feet will be and the more painful it would be.

It was crucial that the first binding was done properly. The procedure was always started on an auspicious day. Boiled water, bandage, shoes, knife, needle and thread were all that one needed to inflict this beautification on little girls. First, the feet are thoroughly washed and the toenails are cut. Then they are dusted with alum powder to prevent infection. And then the actual binding starts. Ping Wang gives the following procedure for footbinding.

      1. Place one end of the bandage, about two inches wide and ten foot long, on the inside of the instep and from there carry it over the four small toes and wrap them once.
      2. From the inside of the foot, pull the bandage towards the front point and turn it tightly around the big toe.
      3. Wrap the heel from the outer side of the foot, and pull the binding toward the front point so that the heel and toes are drawn together as closely as possible. Wrap the front except for the big toe.
      4. Wrap over the instep, go around the ankle and return to the instep.
      5. Turn toward the heel and wrap the binding from the inner side of the foot to the front point.
      6. Wrap from the inner side and over the instep to the outer side. Wrap around the heel and pull the binding back towards the part of the binding cloth on the instep.
      7. Repeat the process from the beginning until the entire bandage is used, then sew the end to prevent the binding from coming loose.

That was just the binding. The real torture now comes with being forced to walk. The four toes soon break under the pressure. But one must keep walking if the broken bones were to be assimilated into the arch of the feet and given a new shape. These bandages were removed every 4-5 days to clean the feet of blood and pus, then some more alum is put before being rebound. Even the big toe was not spared and was sometimes bound upwards to give it a pointed shape, one of the categories of beauty.

As one progressed with the binding, the feet became gradually and progressively smaller. Smaller shoes were given every once in a while. These girls endured this ordeal for two years and more and went through more than a dozen shoes in the process. And what is more, they had to continue washing, binding and taking care of their feet for the rest of their lives.

Twin red shoes, less than three inches,
With pretty flowers for embroidery.
Wait till I tell the folks at home;
I’ll mortgage the house, give up the land,
And wed with tiny feet as planned.
– Hunan Ditty

Many women made their own shoes ever since they were old enough to have their feet bound, especially in the earlier days. By the time of their marriage, they should have at the very least three pairs of shoes. Some women had up to fifty pairs of shoes; the more the better, because it went as part of her dowry. They were a testimony to her sewing and embroidery skills. White and red were the most desirable colours for the wedding shoes and only married women could wear red shoes. Afterwards, they could always add to the collection. One of the wedding ceremonies even included the bride gifting the closest female relatives of her new husband with a pair of shoes each.

These shoes were to be worn even during sleep. As seen above, the disfigured bare feet were not a beautiful sight. So here is how to make your own pair of shoes, which the bound foot women did for themselves.

  1. Take a piece of cloth and nicely cut out enough for your needs.
  2. First, the silk or cotton cloth must be embroidered nicely with designs and flowers.
  3. Then stitch the cotton cloth into layers making up the heel and sole.
  4. Join the vamp to the sole.
  5. Add a tongue and loops to the sides for ease of use.
  6. And voila, there you have a lovely nice pair of shoes in which you can’t possibly fit your feet into.
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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Indian Homemaker
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 09:26:53

    Just can’t understand this!!! How could someone do this to their own family… :\

    • Fem
      Mar 22, 2012 @ 09:51:59

      The real tragedy is that many women were proud of this. I’ll share a few links in my final post of this series. Those testimonies really made my hairs stand on end.

  2. theconjecturegirl
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 10:15:09

    (shudder).. I could not even bear to visualize the procedure!

    Can’t help but wonder just how much oppression and brain-washing it would have taken to make women torture themselves and their daughters so cruelly!

  3. scribblehappy
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 10:36:59

    Horrifying. Didn’t know the details, just that it was very painful. The picture of the deformed foot gave me goosebumps.

    • Fem
      Mar 22, 2012 @ 17:14:49

      Lot of people do not know the procedure, and that is why it is often compared to high heels. These bound feet do not stop hurting for at least 5 years, and for some women the pain lasts until 20 years. I feel it is wrong to call them bound feet, they are broken feet.

  4. sarahursell
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 22:02:33

    Goodness me! What a shocking ordeal. I’ve only broken one toe- that was bad enough! These poor girls.

  5. Aditya
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 12:56:31

    High Heels are a matter of choice – bound feet were not. Comparing the two is highly insensitive.

  6. agrajag
    Mar 28, 2012 @ 06:08:51

    In what ways do we bind womens feet today ? The literal practice stopped, ofcourse.

    But what do we do to women to limit their freedom and their independence, to restrict their choices, to make them “appealing” to men – even at cost of their own health ?

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