Footbinding was a practice in which Chinese women had their feet broken and bound up so as to achieve a particular shape and small size of the foot which was widely seen as being more aesthetically pleasing or sexually attractive. The practice, which had its start among dancing girls of the 9th or 10th century (Tang Dynasty or Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period), spread among elite women in the Northern Song Dynasty, and by the Southern Song Dynasty (12th-13th centuries) was firmly entrenched among a wide cross-section of society. By the 19th century (Qing Dynasty), footbinding was quite widely and standardly practiced by Han women of all classes, constituting as much as 50-80% of the female population; it was not practiced by members of certain ethnic groups, such as the Manchus, Miao, and Hakka, however, and was less common in Sichuan, Fujian, and Hunan provinces than in other areas. The practice of footbinding was abandoned in the 20th century throughout China, and is no longer practiced today.
The process involved binding the feet with a bandage roughly ten feet long and two inches wide. The toes and front of the foot were curled under and made to touch to the sole of the foot, with the bandage being worn for a lengthy period of time as it was gradually tightened so as to essentially fold the foot in half. The process was extremely painful and messy, yielding blood, pus, and dead flesh; once it was done, the bandages were taken off, and the pain is said to have eased considerably, though the woman was now permanently hobbled, and could only walk short distances, and that with difficulty. Women with bound feet wore special shoes, usually no more than three inches long, and while the size and shape of the foot within these shoes was seen as attractive, the bare foot in this state, known as a "golden lotus," was not, and having it be seen by men was generally avoided. Having one's feet bound, broken, and re-set in this manner also forced women to walk in a particular manner (much as wearing high heels similarly does certain things to the calf, the butt, and the gait), uplifting the buttocks, and forcing a swaying sort of gait which was seen as particularly titillating.
A woman typically had her feet bound by her mother, aunt, grandmother or other female relative at a young age. As with beauty practices in many cultures across history, though men played a prominent role in shaping and perpetuating standards of beauty, women too played a significant role in enforcing that one another adhere to such standards, in part so as to ensure one was able to attract a husband; just as mothers (and other female relatives, friends, etc.) taught their daughters how to wear makeup, how to do their hair, and so forth, so too did they bind their daughters' feet. Though they of course knew how excruciatingly painful it was, having experienced it themselves, they perpetuated the practice through their daughters, in order to help the daughter avoid ridicule or shame, in order to ensure that she would fit in with social norms, and in order to help ensure she would be able to secure a husband.
Of course, women with bound feet were less mobile, and less frequently left the house. The practice thus reinforced (and/or was reinforced by) ideas that a woman should devote herself to housework and family matters, and should have no need to leave the house, and thus no need for a fuller education. Lessened mobility also hampered the possibility of women engaging in adulterous affairs, and enforced their chastity. Some scholars have gone further, to suggest that men explicitly and directly employed footbinding in order to maintain the subjugation of women and to ensure male dominance.
- Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 22-24.
- Patricia Ebrey, The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, Univ of California Press (1993), 37-40.