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Foot binding began late in the T’ang Dynasty (618-906) and it gradually spread through the upper class during the Song Dynasty (960-1297). During the Ming period (1368-1644) and the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) the custom of foot binding spread through the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population until it was finally outlawed in the 1911 Revolution of Sun Yat-Sen.

There are several legends that endeavor to account for the inception of this custom, one is that the concubine of a Chinese prince named Yao Niang walked so gracefully that it seemed as if she “skimmed over the top of golden lilies.” At that time the “lily footed woman” or a woman with bound feet became the model in China. A second legend says that this concubine, Yao Niang, was ordered to bind her feet so that her feet would look like new moons. A third legend says that women bound their feet out of sympathy for an Empress with club feet. Yet another originating in the Sung dynasty (960-976 BC) in the court of Prince Li Yu, whose favorite concubine who was required to dance with her feet bound, toe-dancing an early variation of ballet, the royal craze moved down the social ladder, eventually reaching peasants who hoped to achieve higher status through smaller feet.

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So exactly what is foot binding? It was an attempt to stop the growth of the feet. In the first month of her sixth or seventh years she would have her ears pierced, soon after she would have her feet bound. Her mother would consult the lunar calendar to make certain it was an auspicious day for her daughter’s feet to be bound. If the girl’s feet were bound on the wrong day it was thought that the process would be more painful or that the foot would not come to the desired shape. The date was usually in the autumn so that the cold winter would numb the foot during the painful formation period.

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When the chosen day came about the mother would soak the daughter’s feet in warm water with herbs or warm animal blood. After they were thoroughly dried, all of the dead skin and flesh was rubbed off. The toenails would be clipped so that they would not dig into the foot after it was bound and thus cause infection. Then the foot was massaged with alum to keep it from sweating. After that, bandages two inches wide and ten feet long of white (or dark blue in poorer areas) cotton were used to wrap the feet. One end was placed on the inside of the instep. It was pulled across the small toes in order to force them in towards the sole. The big toe was left unbound, so that the finished foot would come to a point. The wrapping was then brought around her heel to force the heel and the toes together. This process was repeated until the entire bandage was applied.

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Directly afterward the mother would force her child to walk on the newly bound and painful feet. The bandage was tightened each day and the girl was put into progressively smaller and smaller sized shoes called ‘lotus shoes’, which were made of silk and were beautifully embroidered. However, even after the foot had achieved the desired shape and size, usually a time span of two years, it had to remain bound for the entirety of the girl’s life so that it would not try to heal. The result was it kept her feet from growing larger than 10 cm, about 3.9 inches. The cleft between the toes and the heels should be two to three inches deep. The foot should be narrow, fleshy and smooth, and come to a point at the toe of the shoe.

Binding the feet was the easy part, being bent so out of shape the feet required lots of care. The feet had to be washed and manicured on a daily basis. If they weren’t manicured properly the toe nails could cut into the instep and infection could set in. If the bindings were too tight they could cut off circulation which could lead to gangrene and blood poisoning. The feet had to be massaged and given hot and cold compresses to help relieve the pain and help improve circulation. If all this isn’t bad enough, corns would develop on the toes that were bent under and would have to be lanced with a needle and then cut off with a knife. With the lack of circulation flesh would rot and fall off and sometimes the toes would ooze pus. The pain was said to have been excruciating especially if this process was begun at a later age. The ideal foot would fit into a shoe only three to four inches long. A Chinese saying says, “Every pair of small feet costs a bath (kang) of tears”. It is difficult to imagine the suffering that these women had to endure.

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Besides identifying women of gentility or high-class, foot binding was a method used to control women during a time when women were regarded as little more than property. It prevented women from “wandering”, they were physically prevented from moving about freely and unchaperoned, and were thus rendered incapable from succumbing to infidelity and bound feet became a symbol of chastity. The thinking was that the bound foot, once it was formed, could not be unlocked like a chastity belt. These women would had to walk with very short mincing steps and could stand only with great difficulty. Although the bound foot was described as aesthetically pleasing compared with the natural alternative, complications such as ulceration, paralysis and gangrene were not uncommon, and it has been estimated that as many as ten percent of the girls did not survive the “treatment”. A young girl from a wealthy family would often receive a body servant at the time of her initial binding, to look after her personal needs during wakeful nights of pain and carry her into the garden when her feet were too painful to walk on. This often developed into a life-long relationship which provided mutual psychological dependency, as well as comfort, affection and companionship.

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Within the areas and classes in which foot binding was widely accepted, a girl of marriageable age with natural feet had only limited prospects for making a “good” marriage. Having a daughter with bound feet transformed the biological disadvantage of being born female into a distinct social advantage by increasing her opportunities for making a lucrative marriage. Her selection in marriage was the responsibility of her prospective mother-in-law, whose criterion for a good daughter-in-law was the discipline that the bound foot represented. She was fully expected to acquire considerable control over her pain, reflecting the ideals of civility, a mindful body and concealment. Failure to marry, they understood, was to have no life, since a woman had no purpose in Chinese society except as a wife and mother of sons. Perhaps worse still, according to Chinese belief, without a husband or children to tend their graves, these women could become “hungry ghosts” forced to wander the earth for eternity.

One of the primary allures of foot binding lay in its concealment, and to be acceptable a pair of small feet had to be covered by binder, socks and shoes, doused in perfurne and scented powder, and then hidden under layers of leggings and skirts. Women also attended to their feet in the strictest privacy, often washing their feet separately from the rest of their body to shield themselves and others from contamination. Only those privileged to the utmost intimacy were allowed to view the processes of cleansing and care, and women wore special bed slippers even if otherwise nude. Much of foot binding’s aura derived from this concealment of the physicality of the foot, mirroring the privacy requirements society and family placed on the individual.

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Foot binding had many physiological effects. It created an outside swelling of the abdomen, a line down the back due to the muscle stress and the lumbar vertebrae would curve forward. Foot binding forced a woman to focus her weight on her lower body putting a lot of pressure on the pelvis, which caused it to expand in diameter and to lower the height of the pelvis. It also caused the sacrum to be longer and wider. This practice not only effected a woman with pain but it also effected her entire body causing it to become deformed as well.

Foot binding was obligatory for aristocratic Chinese women and was considered erotic. The resulting ‘lotus foot’ was used in love-making it was considered particularly important for prostitutes and concubines to possess it as well. Some chinese men were also subjected to foot binding, in particular the adopted boys of adult homosexuals. Actors, male prostitutes, transvestites and female impersonators copied the lotus foot, by squeezing into lotus-like shoes and imitating the sensuous walk.

For Chinese men, bound feet became a sexual fetish and were said to be conducive to better intercourse. Smaller feet were a major erogenous zone. It was considered sexually arousing, the soft fleshy cleavage under the arch of the foot was the equivalent of the labia. It was believed that the way foot binding made a woman walk strengthened and tightened the skin around the vagina making it more narrow, highly-muscled, “full of wondrous folds”. A woman with bound feet had to walk with her weight on her heals her chest thrust outward, and her pelvis sticking backward. This led to a swaying seductive walk, and the muscles in the buttocks and thighes became more developed creating a more curvaceous body. The girls’ buttocks and “jade gate” were believed to develop to such a degree that she could grip her husbands “jade spear” more tightly. Supposedly making the man feel like the woman was a virgin every time they made love. Sexual positions were often based upon the manipulation of the bound foot. It also had the erotic enticement of sadomasochism, bondage and domination. A woman was weak because of her bound feet and could therefore be at the mercy of her lover, which was sexually exciting to many men. Furthermore, some men had odor fetishes, and enjoyed the smell of the feet. Extensive sexual guides specify countless special techniques involving the use of bound foot for sex.

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Modern Foot Binding?

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Modern Foot Binding?

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Modern Foot Binding?

It was common to use the foot in foreplay. Many men took pleasure in kissing, sucking, and chewing the foot. They would place it on their bodies, or even eat from it. Men would also use the crevice of the foot to stimulate their genitals. It was not unusual for men to be aroused just from looking at the tiny silk slippers, with or without a woman wearing them. Men masturbated looking at tiny silk slippers. Men drank from the slippers. Some men would steal slippers, especially red slippers worn to bed by women. They fondled the tiny feet and slippers during sex. To some, the cleft in the foot was treated like a vagina. A woman with bound feet could also, supposedly, move around more easily in bed.

The foot was mysterious. Its furtive nature aroused curiosity amongst men. The Chinese female was concealed from men for most of her youth, hidden in the house. The hidden feet followed this idea of the concealed female. The foot was always wrapped, and even when women slept they wore slippers. Women’s feet were the exclusive possession of the husband and touch was avoided as it was considered an act of great intimacy. Chinese pornography of the past reflects a preoccupation with the feet, and the men who adored them – “lotus lovers” – became the authors of the classics of brothel culture, which describe in detail the various shapes of bound feet and the erotic practices in which they could be employed. Poetry and writings from this period express a great infatuation even an obsession bordering on perversion, tiny feet were celebrated in poetry and song. There was also a large number of pornographic paintings and engravings with scenes of men fondling women’s feet. It’s no wonder that men were so adamant about their wives having bound feet.

When Mao Tse-Tung first came into power, he denounced the leadership who failed to share his blueprint for revolution as “old women with bound feet.” When he later condemned the practice of foot binding, “pillow books” that described the use of bound feet in sexual activity still were commonplace. These books and other significant books and materials evoking China’s pre-revolution past were destroyed in the cultural revolution. Today, despite the fact that an estimated 4.5 billion Chinese women over a period of 1, 000 years are believed to have been subjected to the pain of foot binding, there is no evidence of even a single pair of bound feet shoes being on view in any Chinese museum.

If you wish to get some idea of what these women actually went through, purchase a roll of elastoplast adhesive tape, place a tennis ball in the arch of your foot and tape the ball to your foot. Try walking around the room with your toes retracted towards the soles of your feet or better still tape your toes into that position. We will take bets you don’t get very far or last any length of time.



One Response to Chinese Foot Binding

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  • Stephen Shenfield says:

    When Mao came to power the fight against foot binding had already been in progress for several decades. The Guomindang was also against it. Millions of young people struggled to get rid of oppressive Confucian customs. Now you want to bring all the old crap back.

1 of 11

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