Chinese Foot Binding

Interested in learning more about Chinese foot binding? Find about this ancient custom that was practiced in China for a thousand years.

Foot binding is one of the most unique phenomena of the Chinese culture. It was an ancient custom practiced on little girls initiated back in the 10th century. This custom prevailed throughout China for over a thousand years.

The practice involved binding the feet of women tightly in special bandages. This would cause the feet to break and become deformed over the course of time. Binding the feet would restrict the growth of the feet to a maximum of six inches. The feet would remain that size even when the girl would reach adulthood. Furthermore the women were always susceptible to develop infections, muscular atrophy or even paralysis.

Women with bound feet could not engage in work that required strenuous physical labor. In fact foot binding was one of the ways to restrict the women at home and deprive her of any social or political participation. These women would engage in household activities like cooking and cleaning.

The Chinese perception of foot binding at the time

Foot binding had a gradual and painful effect on the woman’s foot with the passage of time. As the girl’s foot would grow four toes on both feet would crack in a year. The big toe however would remain unaffected. There was great emphasis on getting the arch right. A perfectly arched foot was known as the “lotus foot”. Most women strove for trying to give their daughters a “gold lotus foot” which was considered to be the best and measured three inches. The Chinese had developed special shoes for women with lotus feet known as gold lotus shoes.

The second most special bound feet were four inches in length and they were named silver lotus. The binding process would sometimes create such a big bend in the feet that they got tagged with the name “lotus hooks”. The girls were made to go through immense pain and risk health hazards because of this practice. A pair of deformed feet gave the women a different and unsteady walk which came to be known as the lotus gait.

The abolishment of foot binding

With time there arose some dynasties that attempted to ban this practice considering it to be inhumane. The first such attempt was made by the Manchus who came to China in the 17th century. The Manchus were unsuccessful in abolishing the practice as a whole but managed to exercise a ban on Manchu women for foot binding. In place of this ancient custom the Manchu women would wear flower bowl shoes that created an illusion of small feet. The Manchu and Han women were distinguished because of the foot binding practice which flourished amongst the Hans but was forbidden amongst the Manchus. The Taiping Rebellion that was to come later on had the abolishment of foot binding as one of its objectives as well.

The custom continued to exist amongst the Chinese up until the 20th century. It was in the 20th century that a genuine anti-footbinding movement took place in China initiated by Chinese and Western missionaries. With the establishment of the new Republic of China in 1911 foot binding was officially banned forever.

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