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Jul. 25th, 2008


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FOOTBINDING: A Painful Tradition

The Chinese tradition of footbinding may seem like a peculiar practice to people who are unfamiliar with the custom. However, according to Cecil Adams, the author of "The Straight Dope" in the Honolulu Weekly, "...in principle, Chinese foot fetishism wasn't any stranger than Western males' obsession with the female breast" (19). If viewed in this way, then there are many customs as strange as the Chinese's practice of footbinding. An example of a tradition involving danger and pain is the Victorian corset worn by European women to make their waists look smaller in size. In today's society, women still alter their appearance to attract men. Some women subject themselves to pain and hardship when they get breast implants, liposuction, or wear stilettos. The only difference between the Chinese and American alteration is that the American women are not forced to make body alterations. It is done voluntarily.

It is not clear when and how footbinding began, but the custom eventually turned into a social one that affected all the women in their society. This bizarre tradition that lasted over a thousand years was a reflection of the Chinese civilization. It was a custom that controlled women's lifestyles and roles in the community. Underneath its mask of silk, footbinding was a world of pain, sexual pleasure, and symbols of family life, beauty, and fashion.

Footbinding was the Chinese custom that stopped a woman's feet from growing over three inches. Having developed somewhere around the T'ang (618-907 AD.) and Sung (960-1279 AD.) dynasties, footbinding began with the upper classes of China. The exact date of its emergence is a debatable issue. According to Chang Pang-chi, a commentator of the early twelfth century, "...footbinding had begun during the Southern Yang dynastic rule of sovereign-poet Li Yu (r. 961-75), a ruler who controlled one region of a divided China prior to reunification by the Sung" (Levy, Lotus 39). Li Yu 's favorite concubine, named Lovely Maiden, was a talented dancer who was ordered to bind her feet. It was believed that he wanted her feet bound because he was influenced by practices mentioned in ancient Chinese folklore. One of these legends that may have captured Li Yu's attention was a story that involved a beautiful fox. According to the story, the fox needed "to conceal its paws while assuming the human guise of the Shang empress" (Lotus 37). The only solution to its problem was footbinding. Another folklore similar to this one involved the empress who had a deformed foot. It had been said that she convinced her husband to make it mandatory for the young girls to have their feet compressed. As a result, this permitted the empress "to set forth her deformity as a model of beauty and elegance" (Lotus 37).

But Howard S. Levy, in his book, The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China, talked about the travelogue of Friar Odoric of Pordenone which mentioned the custom of foodbinding (48). The travelogue was published slightly earlier than Pang-chi's Chinese source. Therefore, footbinding could not have originated with Li Yu . It had already existed among the women that Odoric wrote about.

According to Pang-chi and a handful of other authors, the concubines who bound their feet would entertain the emperors with their dancing. During the Yuan Dynasty (ca.1271-1368), the custom "moved down the social ladder, eventually reaching peasants who hoped to achieve higher status through smaller feet" (Kam D-6). The practice was transformed into a traditional custom that was passed down from generation to generation in the common classes. However, the custom changed as it was passed on. Since footbinding started with the dancing concubines, this suggested that the "compression at first was only slight and not severe enough to seriously hamper movement" (Levy, Chinese 30). When the practice moved to the commoners, "the foot became so compressed that the woman usually hobbled about with difficulty or had to lean on a wall, cane, or another person for support" (30). The Chinese wrapped the feet so tightly, the custom crippled women's feet for the rest of their lives.

A girl's feet were bound anywhere between the ages of three and eleven years old. It was common for the girt to object to this practice. Unfortunately, the mother would force her daughter to participate in the traditional custom. Before the process was started, the girl's feet were washed in hot water and massaged. This helped to make the feet a little easier to compress. In the first step of footbinding, the four smallest toes were painfully pressed against the sole of the foot with a cotton cloth. The cloth used was two inches wide and ten feet long. The largest toe was the only toe that was free from the binding. The next step was to bring the cloth bandage "around the heel so tightly that the front and back of the foot were drawn in toward each other, forcing the instep of the foot to arch upward" (Campbell1). After the process of footbinding, the girl's feet were forced into the tiny shoes that were three inches long. These shoes were called "lotus shoes" and were made out of silk.

There were several names that referred to the Chinese women's bound feet. The general names commonly used for bound feet were "golden lilies," "lily feet," or "golden lotus." There were special names to describe women. For example, a woman who bent forward when she tried to walk with bound feet was called a "bound branch lotus." Natural footed women, who did not bind their feet because they had to work in the fields or those who rebelled against the traditions, were called "Duckfoot" or "Lotus Boat" (Chinese 31). They were disliked and despised for not following the traditional Chinese custom.

Footbinding caused enormous pain and agony for Chinese women. Each tune they tried to walk around the house, they encountered great difficulties. If the woman had to attend a funeral or anything that took place Outside of her house, she had to be carried on a sedan chair (Lotus 260). The unbearable pain and deprivation caused physiological and psychological effects on the women. A lot of the commoners learned how to deal with it, covered up their true feelings, or tried to ignore what was done to them.

Some of the other problems footbinding caused were the loss of toes and/or even death. If the woman's feet were not properly bound, an insufficient amount of blood supply in the feet led to gangrene, causing the decayed toes to fall off. In certain cases, some of the women died from footbinding. Failure to give the feet proper cleaning and grooming also caused problems. Another problem was that footbinding disrupted the regular women's menstrual flow. Basically, "the success or failure of footbinding depended on [the] skillful application of a bandage around each foot" (Chinese 23).

The painful custom controlled women's lifestyles and roles in the community. Binding women's feet to the point of crippling confined them to their home. This practice showed that in the Chinese family, the woman belonged in the house and had no place in the outside world. The business world, the world outside of the house, belonged to the men who earned money for the family. In his book, Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, Levy stated that traditional apologists felt that the alteration of the women's foot size clearly "...defined visual points of difference between the sexes" (31). The traditional practice demonstrated that the Chinese women heavily relied on the men for support. Women were the dependents, while the men were the individuals who could do anything they wished to do. Women were restricted from a number of things and were inferior to the men of their society.

A Chinese woman's marital status also was affected by the custom of footbinding. If her feet were bound properly and beautifully displayed, she would be able to marry a good man. "A woman with unbound feet could not, easily, find quality husbands" (Campbell 1). The Chinese men ridiculed and laughed at those who had big feet. These women usually stayed single because the natural-footed were considered to be Ugly and unattractive.

There were several reasons why footbinding was created and lasted for such a long time. Some people believed that footbinding was developed because Chinese men were afraid that the women could easily leave them. Another possible reason was to stop Chinese women from being or becoming promiscuous. If the women were restricted from walking, it would be harder for them to leave the house and have an affair with another man. Others felt that it was a sign of beauty to have small feet. A woman's small feet signified that she had "...style, social class, and proper upbringing" (1). But some authors object to all of these reasons. They have claimed that the painful practice lasted for over a thousand years, because the Chinese men had a sexual fascination with the tiny feet.

Men who loved the bound feet were often referred as the "lotus lovers." They were aroused by the mysterious covered feet and were thrilled to see it without the cotton cloth. According to Levy, the bound feet aroused the men's five senses:

The eye rejoiced in the tiny footstep and in the undulating motion of the buttocks which it caused; the ear thrilled to the whispered walk, while the nose inhaled a fragrant aroma from the perfumed sole and delighted in smelling the bared flesh at closer range. The ways of grasping the foot in one's palms were both profuse and varied; ascending the heights of ecstasy, the lover transferred the foot from palm to mouth. (Lotus 34)

Chinese men would eat the watermelon seeds or almonds placed between women's toes. Drinking from a cup inside the lotus shoes and/or even drinking straight out of the shoe itself, were other common practices. Besides these strange habits, some of the men also drank the water that the bound feet were washed in. The men treasured the bound feet like a precious piece of gold.

Another reason why the men liked the women who had bound feet was that it influenced a woman's body. According to a Taiwanese doctor:

When a footbound woman went walking, the lower part of her body was in a state of tension. This caused the skin and flesh of her legs and also the skin and flesh of her vagina to become tighter. The woman's buttocks, as a result of walking, became larger and more attractive sexually to the male. (Lotus 34)

Nagao Ryuzo, a Japanese scholar and sociologist, said that the effect of footbinding on women gave "the same sensation of tightness in intercourse as a virgin" (Lotus 34), perhaps another reason why footbinding was created and lasted for a very long time.

The practice of footbinding became a fashionable practice for the women. When they were done with the household chores, they spent their time designing their tiny shoes. The Chinese women became skillful crafters who embroidered exquisite designs. After the women completed a pair of shoes, they were extremely proud of their extraordinary and astonishing piece of work. A pair of beautifully embroidered lotus shoes was an object of fashion that the women wore with honor. As a result, needlework became a popular form of selfexpression. It was an art that could be seen on every pair of lotus shoes.

Chinese women weren't the only people who practiced this tradition. According to Nadine Kam, an assistant features editor of the Honolulu StarBulletin, "some men- primarily actors and prostitutes - also bound their feet" (Kam, D-6). Some Chinese writers claimed that even the upper-class Korean women of the later centuries were compressing their feet, but the degree in severity differed. Footbinding continued to influence the Chinese civilization and its neighbors " ...until the Manchu Dynasty was toppled in 1911 and the new republic was formed. Footbinding was then outlawed" ("Background" 1).

Works Cited

Adams, Cecil. "The Straight Dope." Honolulu Weekly 21-27 Oct. 1998: 19.

"Background Information for This Lesson." Golden Legacy Curriculum. 21 Oct. 1998. <http://ericir.syr.edu/projects/hcp/foot.html>.

Campbell County Schools. "Footbinding." 21 Oct. 1998. <http://www.campbell.kl2.ky.us/programs/oasis/senseof/footbind.htm>.

Kam, Nadine. "Golden Lilies." Honolulu StarBulletin Mar. 1998: D-I+.

Levy, Howard S. Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom. New York: Walton Rawls, 1966.

The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1992.