Home Art and cultureArt and AestheticsChinese Foot Binding: Pain Endured to Amuse Others
Chinese Foot Binding: Pain Endured to Amuse Others

Chinese Foot Binding: Pain Endured to Amuse Others

Standards of beauty vary from regions to regions. The Mayans re-shaped the heads to meet their social beauty standards. The Vietnamese blackened their teeth as a symbol of beauty and great health. And in the ancient Chinese, nothing could compare with a woman with a tiny feet. We call it the Chinese foot binding. In the modern sense, this standard of beauty is among the most painful ways that the women had to endure to meet the social standard in the past.

The Origins of the Chinese foot binding

There are two famous surviving texts about the origins of the Chinese foot binding.

The first one went back to the Shang Dynasty (around 1600BCE to 1046BCE). The last king of the Shang Dynasty, King Zhou had a favorite concubine, Daji. She was beautiful but born with the club foot. Being the favorite of the King, Daji forced the court ladies to bind their daughters’ feet resembling hers. In this time, people thought the tiny feet were beautiful. The corrupt King quickly discredit Daji and executed her briefly before the collapse of Shang Dynasty. But the practice of Chinese foot binding became a Chinese tradition for the next 3,000 years.

A Chinese girl sitting with her lotus feet
A Chinese girl sitting with her lotus feet

In another account, King Li Yu of the Southern Tang had a favorite concubine. Her name was Yao Niang. One day, she made her name by dancing a moon dance. She bound her foot in the crescent shape with white silk and danced. This was so impressive that all female audience followed suit later. Very soon, the girls at the age of 5 would endure the pain of foot binding.

How the Chinese foot binding was carried out?

First, the girls’ feet would be put in the hot water. They clipped the toenails. A process of comfortable massage and oiling the feet came first and all the toes (except the big one) would be broken and bound making a triangle shape. The arch of the feet was strained, the feet being bent double. Then the silk strip ten feet long and two inches wide wound bind the girls’ feet to hold the bent pose. The wrappings would be replaced every two days. Any “excess” flesh would be cut away or left there to rot away.

The adults would force the little girls to walk regularly in a long distance to fasten the process of foot binding. Over the time, the wound healed and the pain they endured would no longer be there. The heel and the sole of their feet finally crushed together. After two years, the process was complete. There existed a crack under the feet of the girls that could hold a coin.

The chinese foot binding result
The crack under the feet of an old Chinese woman. This is the result of the Chinese foot binding

Once the feet were in the desired shape – the lotus, it would be nearly impossible to turn their feet back to the initial shape. Enduring the same pain again didn’t promise to take back the natural shape of their feet though.

In the past, feet of 4 inches meant the Golden Lotus. Feet around 5 inches were the Silver Lotus. But more inches meant the Iron Lotus. Even a Chinese woman with a physical misshape in their feet (making their feet smaller than usual) were seductive and sexy to the Chinese men.

Banning the Chinese Foot Binding

In the latter half of the nineteen century, groups of insightful Chinese, especially the feminists, voiced their opinions about banning the tradition of foot binding. But the journey to finally  put an end to the Chinese foot binding met with many rejections.

When Qing dynasty fell in 1912, the new government banned the practice of foot binding again. While the ban went very well on the cities and the urban sites, people in the rural areas still retained the tradition of Chines foot binding.

Chinese foot binding is to forever disappear
The number of Chinses women with the lotus feet is numerable these days. They are around their 90s living in the rural area

When Mao Zedong was in his power and his crew treated the women as the equal partners in working, they once more time attempted to completely ban the Chinese foot binding. They noted that the lotus feet prevented the women from working effectively. This kind of attempt met with a waves of strong oppositions. The women with the lotus feet marched 4,000 miles through the rugged terrain and rivers.

But as time progressed, the number of girls getting their feet bent diminished over the time. When the new chapter turned to the 21th century, there have been a handful of women living in the countryside in their 90s who have the bent feet.

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