Footbinding – Part 3/3: The End of an Era

The silk bandage still warm and fragrant,
Jade lotus hidden under the skirt,
She comes like a floating fairy.
Next to the lifted curtain,
She looks so delicate as if the wind could blow her away;
She walks lightly around the pond, not disturbing the moss.
On the silent path,
Her flowing skirt does not stir any dust.
After a swing,
She leans on her lover’s shoulder with a smile,
and takes time to pull off her shoes

                           – Liang Qingbiao

The last shoe for bound feet was made in 1999 by the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory. From 1830 onwards, the practice of foot binding began to be questioned by the authorities. Government after government made laws to prohibit women from binding their foot. By this time, the custom had gone deep into popular psyche and no amount of State intervention could completely stop this practice.

Xu Ke found the Do Not Bind Feet Society in 1883. He was really concerned that women were parasitic in not doing any work. Liang Quichao also had something similarly nice to say about the women and referred to them as those “with round heads and pointy feet and no better than beasts”. And he was known to be a reformer. One wonders what he reformed with such strictures upon half the population.

In 1895, the Anti Footbinding Society, the first in China, was set up in Shanghai. Soon enough, it opened up branches all over the country and attempted to stop this practice. With women’s education gaining some popularity, foot binding had become a nuisance, and this organisation tried to educate the masses that large knowledge was better than tiny feet. Again in 1912 and later in 1935, bans were made on this practice, but the implementation was sloppy.

However, when the communists came to power in 1949, they enforced a complete ban on foot binding and strictly enforced it. The country required as many workers as it could find, and leaving women out of the picture was no longer productive. In spite of strict enforcement of the policy, some women continued to hide and bind their feet in the hope of a secure future and a great marriage. The problem arose when the Government outlawed bound foots and demanded that women undo their bindings and live life as free women. Or rather work hard in the fields. There was only one problem.

One of the survivors of this custom has said:

When people came to inspect our feet, my mother bandaged my feet, then put big shoes on them. When the inspectors came, we fooled them into thinking I had big feet.

Once deformed, the bound foot could not be unbound. It could be allowed to grow larger, but the deformity will never be corrected, nor will the woman ever gain a natural gait. On top of this, when the binding stops and the feet start to grow gradually, there is unbearable pain. Several women who were forced by the Communist regime to let out their feet have given testimonies on how the unbinding of their feet was even worse than the binding.

Another one, never very happy with the way she was forced to bind her feet in the first place was faced with a dilemma. Standing between the devil and the deep sea, the lady says:

I didn’t know what to do! It hurt to keep binding, yet it would hurt even more to stop.

She adds,

We did it so that the wealthy girls and women, who didn’t work, wouldn’t run around and be mischievous. It was also done to differentiate between the rich and the poor. When I look back upon it now, I feel very angry because if you had bound feet you could not go to school and get an education. So I cannot even read or sign my name properly. I have no culture, no education! This I am extremely angry about! That is why I wanted to make sure my sons and daughter all had good education. Now they are successful and have very good jobs.

There were many like her who found themselves suddenly at the receiving end of a culture that had once forced them into tradition, but later decided to ridicule and punish them for confirming to the same tradition. Suddenly, society woke up one fine day and decided to be ashamed of the humiliation heaped upon its women, and decided to assuage its collective conscience by demanding the women unbind their feet and go to work. There was only one loser with both scenarios – the women.

Learn more @:

Ping Wang: Aching for Beauty: Foot binding in China

Dorothy Ko: Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet

Dorothy Ko: Cinderella’s sisters: a revisionist history of footbinding

Valery Garrett: Chinese dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present

Feng Jikai: Three inch Golden Lotus: A novel of Foot Binding

Lisa See: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Joseph Rupp The History of a Curious, Erotic Custom 

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. misshannah1980
    Mar 29, 2012 @ 04:22:21

    This has been a really interesting and informative series of articles about foot binding. The amound of pain and degredation these women went through, to achieve some form of “body beautiful” is shocking. They made themselves deformed.

  2. scribblehappy
    Mar 29, 2012 @ 05:16:06

    Thanks for this very informative series and the link. Should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the whys and hows of oppression, past or present.

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