Every culture throughout history and around the world has their concept of beauty. During the Song dynasty up to the late 19th century in China, one of the physical features that women must have to be beautiful is by having small and doll-like feet. Humans have relatively large feet as theyallow us to move around while being able to support our weight. But the people during the said era resorted in taking extreme measures to achieve the doll feet that they wanted, and the most prominent method that they used is called foot binding.
Foot binding is a practice wherein someone, commonly the eldest woman of the family, would bind the feet of young girls tightly to alter their shape and size. Feet that were modified to become smaller are commonly called lotus feet due to their flower-like shape.
It was a custom that was first popular for the nobles and elites during the Song dynasty, but the common people soon copied the practice so that they can imitate the look and beauty of noblewomen.
The Process of Foot Binding
The practice of foot binding begins when young girls reach the age of four to nine, where their feet are not yet fully developed and are flexible enough to manipulate into a different shape. Their grandmothers, or sometimes other people, are the ones that will do the foot binding, as their mothers may sympathize with them and stop the process immediately.
The feet will first be soaked in warm water that is mixed with animal blood and herbs. The added ingredients to the foot soak are there to soften the foot faster. Afterward, the young girls’ toenails will be cut deeply so that they won’t grow quickly once the feet are bound. These toes will then be pushed towards the sole or the bottom of the foot tightly until their bones break.
After breaking the bones of the toes, the front part foot will then be pulled downwards and pushed towards the heel, breaking the bones that make up the arch of the foot. Bandages will then be wrapped tightly around the foot to prevent it from going back to its original shape. The wrapping typically starts at the instep or the middle part of the foot, which will then go around the toes, the sole, and finally the heel.
Young girls wouldn’t be able to move their toes and some parts of their feet while bound, which hinders their movement. To prevent them from taking off the binding, the one who did the procedure would sew the ends of the cloth used to bind the foot together.
The foot would have to be unbound regularly in order to clean it. The unbound foot is generally cleaned and checked for any infections or wounds, and then it will be bound again. The binding would get tighter and tighter each time the process is repeated. People of the upper class will repeat the procedure once a day, while the lower class would repeat the process at least twice or thrice a week.
After the foot has fully healed from the process and has completely transformed into a lotus foot, any attempts to alter it back to its natural shape can be painful. Those with lotus feet would have them for the rest of their lives as they would not want to experience the pain of manipulating the shape of their foot or they don’t have enough money to pay a doctor to perform a surgery.
No one knows exactly how the practice of foot binding came to be, but it was generally believed that Emperor Li Yu, the ruler of the Southern Tang state during the Five Kingdoms period in China, invented the custom.
According to the story that happened before the Song dynasty, specifically during the 10th century, Emperor Li Yu built a statue of a golden lotus that is six feet tall and is adorned with different stones. After creating the golden lotus, Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang to perform a dance on the lotus while her feet are bound in silk. Yao Niang’s movements were so elegant that women from the upper class started wrapping their feet in silk as well to imitate Yao Niang’s graceful moves and beauty. The foot binding custom quickly spread in China as more and more women wanted to become just like Yao Niang.
However, there are several scholars who have opposed the practice during the 13th century, and one of these scholars is CheRuoshui, who wrote that young girls are not supposed to suffer pain and suffering that is brought by foot binding, which is a senseless practice.
It was widely accepted by historians that the popularity of foot binding reached its peaked during the Song dynasty when archaeologists discovered two remains that have bound feet. The remains belong to women who have most likely lived during the said dynasty.
During the Yuan dynasty, it was believed that men would often drink alcoholic beverages from the shoe worn by women with lotus feet, and this was often called “toast to the golden lotus,” which may be connected to Emperor Li Yu’s story. This tradition of drinking on lotus feet shoes became popular until the end of the Qing dynasty.
When Hong Taiji founded the Qing dynasty, he proposed to ban the practice of foot binding in 1636, but it was unsuccessful. He tried to impose a ban again in 1638, and then the emperor who succeeded him issued another edict to ban foot binding in 1664. The Chinese people during that time did not comply with the bans and still continued to bind the foot of young girls, which prompted the government to stop their effort to ban foot binding in 1668.
Historians have found out that 40 to 50% of women in China have bound feet during the 19th century, and most of the women with lotus feet came from the upper class. Foot binding became prominent in China due to the fact that many people consider it as a symbol of being and as a way for lower-class women to marry upper-class men, who will only marry women with lotus feet.
The number of people who oppose the practice of foot binding started to increase during the 19th century when Christian missionaries convinced the elite and the lower class people that foot binding is a barbaric custom that should be abolished. However, convincing the people of China to band foot binding is a difficult task, and as such, the missionaries have used many methods to increase the knowledge of the people in the harmful effects of foot binding in one’s body. Some of these methods include providing education, giving out pamphlets, and setting up meetings with the court.
Through the missionaries’ efforts, several anti-foot binding societies have been formed 1874 to 1993, including the Natural Foot Society and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement. Almost all members of these anti-foot binding societies have promised never to let their daughters get their feet bound and discourage their sons from marrying a woman with lotus feet.
When the Republic of China was formed in 1912, the government sought to educate the people that foot binding is a sign of China’s backwardness, and those who don’t comply with the ban are the ones who refuse to accept progress and change in the nation.
Yan Xishan, a warlord in the province of Shanxi, implemented a campaign that penalizes people who practice foot binding. The success of the campaign in the area led to other regions implementing the anti-foot binding campaign as well. During this period, it was reported that only 2.3% of women living in one province had bound feet.
By 1957, the custom of foot binding has disappeared entirely, as all women who were born after 1949 did not have lotus feet. Only a few women who have lived before World War II have bound feet, and they won’t be able to get new shoes anymore as the last factory in China to produce lotus feet shoes closed in 1999.