Foot Binding – Chinese Culture of Small Feet

During the Tang Dynasty in China, foot binding was a practice that is done to young girls. Foot binding aims to restrict average growth to a young girl’s feet and make them as small as possible. Back then, having small feet was considered an attractive quality even if the effects of this process were permanent and, let alone, painful. Foot binding was also used to differentiate girls of the upper class from everyone else, and as years passed, it also became a way for the lower types to improve their social view. In this article, we are going to learn more about foot binding. 

How is Foot Binding Performed?

Foot binding is typically done on Chinese girls from age five to eight. The process of foot binding begins with choosing a promising day in the calendar. After that, offerings and prayers are offered to the tiny-footed maiden goddess, who is taught to be the protector of women in general. When everything’s ready, the foot binding is done by a professional foot binder or the older woman of the family. The big toe is left facing forwards in foot binding while the four smaller toes are bent under the foot. This position until the feet are tightly bound using long strips of cloth. This way, any future growth of the feet is restricted and will give it a pronounced arch. After a month, the feet are unbounded and treated of any ulcerations of the skin, and then they rebound the feet again. The bindings are retightened and loosened once each month until the girl reaches her early teens. Girls commonly lost one or more toes or developed gangrene or infections in the foot. Foot binding is carried out even as the girls age, and they continue to wrap their deformed feet in bindings and wear them every time in public and even when bathing. 

The long and excruciating process of foot binding was to have feet that are no longer than 3 to 4 inches. In China, having this kind of foot is known as the “Lotus” feet, and they believe that the smaller the feet were, the more attractive the woman is. In fact, some of the men even find it erotic, and they saw it as a distinct mark of elegance. This was true because the woman with bound feet was forced to take small and light steps. They also had to wear dainty and beautifully embroidered shoes that are made of cotton or silk. 

History of Foot Binding

Back in the early 10th century during the Tang dynasty, emperor Li Yu ordered one of his slave girls to dance on a covered in golden lotus flowers while her feet are bind with silk ribbons. Since then, foot binding got associated with the term golden lotus or lotus feet. At first, foot binding was only practiced by women who were members of the royal court, but during the Song dynasty in 960-1279 CE, foot binding became a widespread practice, especially in northern and central China. At first, only the aristocrats practiced foot binding, but as it became popular, lower-class parents saw it as an opportunity to help them raise the prospects of their own daughters. Eventually, having lotus feet became a trait that parents should note when arranging their son’s marriage. That is why as years passed, women from all social classes were eager to practice foot binding because they saw it as a symbol of elegance, beauty, and desirable feet.

However, foot binding created a certain peer pressure among families, and they have to choose whether or not they will perform it on their daughters or take the risk of not matching them with eligible husbands. As a result, foot binding was less common in some regions in China where women were expected to be involved in agricultural work such as farming and cultivation of wet rice.