Chinese foot binding, where the feet of girls were bound so that they changed their shape, has a lot of history to speak about. Why was this practiced? How did it come about and what did it leave in its wake? We shall try and understand this concept in complete detail in the following article.
There are different cultures in this world. Each of these cultures have certain exclusive practices that they adhere to, like the Samoan culture and their tradition of tattooing their entire body, or the Long Neck Tribe of the Thai-Burma border, who elongate their necks by fitting them with metal rings. And then there is the tradition of foot binding. The name might suggest what it entails, but what is it really about and why was it done? Let us find out.
Chinese foot binding involved binding the feet of women in order to shrink them―such that they could fit into 3 inch shoes. The shoes used in this practice were called lotus shoes. Having small feet that were shaped like moon crests was considered to be the highest form of beauty for women in China.
This practice was carried out when the girl was between 4 – 7 years of age, and required about two years to get the desired results. For this, a 10 inch long and 2 inch wide bandage was used. This bandage was tightly wrapped around the feet of the girl, so that the four small toes were bent under the sole and the big toe almost touched the heel. The bandage was then tightened everyday and the girl was made to fit into shoes that became smaller and smaller, until the time the girl could manage to fit into 3 – 4 inch shoes (the ideal size).
It might not be possible for one to imagine the amount of pain and torture that these girls underwent. Attempting to change the shape of the foot, by defying the basic laws of anatomy can never be easy. And it wasn’t. The bound feet had to be regularly massaged and given hot and cold compresses to help relieve the pain (which never really helped). The nails had to be trimmed everyday; failing to do of which, would make the nails cut into the instep, leading to an infection. So also, if the feet were bound too tightly it would lead to blood poisoning, pus and gangrene due to lack of circulation. There were painful corns that developed and there was rotting and falling off the flesh. The result of this was that, after two years that it took to achieve the narrowing and shrinking of the feet, the feet were rendered useless and dead. Walking became a painful task and most girls had to be carried around.
But why was this done? What is the history behind this tradition? Let us take a look in the following section.
Chinese foot binding began in the T’ang Dynasty (618 – 906) and lasted for around a thousand years in the ancient Chinese culture. It is said that there were approximately a billion women who underwent this practice. There are several theories and legends that this practice leaves in its wake. Here are some stories that highlight why and how this tradition came to be a part of the Chinese culture.
|It is said that a concubine of a famous Chinese prince walked so gracefully, that it seemed like she had airy feet. She skimmed through the air and golden lilies. That is why the concept of the ‘lily-footed woman’ became famous in China.
Another account says that Tang dancers in a king’s court would bind their feet so that they could take small and light steps that were required for the dancing.
Another legend says that women began to bind their feet in order to show solidarity for an empress who had club feet.
No matter why it started, the practice became so famous that it seeped into the richer upper classes of society. And the wives and concubines of men were expected to follow it. Why? Two reasons. Reason number one being that it fitted perfectly well with the Confucian teachings that stated a hierarchy, where women were supposed to be subordinates of men. This practice having rendered the feet of women useless, women had to be dependent upon men for all things, therefore they could be controlled better. They could not run from the beatings and neither could they restrain them. The second reason was that, due to the binding, the foot became a perfect arch and replicated the structure of the crescent moon, and came to be taken as an erotic symbol.
These two reasons led to it becoming a prerequisite for marriage. Women with bound feet could not walk and had to totter about. This restricted their movements and led them to be around the house. And thus foot binding became a symbol of chastity and eroticism.
Foot binding remained in the Chinese culture and society for over a thousand years and was finally outlawed in 1911 as a part of the Sun Yat-Sen revolution.