Foot Binding: Crippling Practice Fades into History

Foot Binding: Crippling Practice Fades into History

It’s hard to know where to begin with a topic as painful and emotionally-charged as foot binding. If you are sensitive or squeamish, you may find this difficult to read. Foot binding lasted over 1,000 years in China and crippled an estimated one to two billion women. It was practiced by a large section of the population and crossed all socio-economic lines. No one knows for certain how or why foot binding came about. Basically, the toes and arches of the feet were broken and bound in such a way as to attain the look of a lotus blossom, ideally measuring three to four inches long. By contrast, a woman’s natural foot is about eight inches in length, so you can imagine the amount of pain women endured to achieve a three-inch foot.


A Woman’s Legacy

The process was started on girls ranging in age from two to seven years. The upper classes would start binding the feet of the youngest children, while girls from the lower classes were often older when their feet were bound. Foot binding was always carried out by females—either a relative or a professional foot binder. It was believed that a mother would have compassion for her daughter and not bind the feet as tightly..


First, the girl’s feet were rubbed with alum, soaked in herbs and animal blood, and then massaged to relax them. The toenails were cut short, and the toes were then folded under and pressed with great force against the sole of the foot. Usually the toes were broken at this point, but if not, they would eventually break from the tight binding. The arch of the foot was also forcibly broken and the foot bent so the ball and heel of the foot would almost touch. The big toe was left intact to form the point of the “lotus.” 


A large bandage, 10-feet long and two inches wide, was soaked in the herb/blood mixture and wrapped tightly in a figure-eight motion around the entire foot. This pressed the toes firmly against the sole and drew the ball and heel more tightly together. The bandage was then sewn in place. As the bandage dried, it constricted the foot. This process had to be repeated often--daily or every few days-- over the course of two years to achieve “lotus feet.” 


Ingrown toenails caused injuries to the feet, sometimes leading to gangrene and toes falling off. This was actually preferable as it made the foot smaller. As the flesh of the foot rotted, it was washed off, which also made the foot smaller. Sometimes septicemia (blood poisoning) would set in and the girl would die. Girls who survived septic shock were more prone to medical problems as they grew older.


The “Winners”: Men

Bound feet were considered highly erotic by Chinese men. The three-inch foot, called the “golden lotus,” was highly prized and often ensured a good marriage for the girl. The four-inch foot, called the “silver lotus,” was also valued. Special shoes, often beautifully embroidered, were made to cover the feet.


A love manual from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) showed 48 different ways to fondle a woman’s bound feet. To maintain the illusion of beauty, a woman rarely uncovered her lotus feet because of the foul odor and the obvious deformity. The fact that the feet were hidden from view added to the sexual allure. Women had limited mobility with bound feet, but when they walked it was mostly on their heels. This caused unsteady, “mincing” movements and was referred to as the “lotus gait,”  which men found arousing. A woman’s limited mobility also meant she was virtually house bound or had to be escorted outside the home. Not only was this a sign of wealth, but it ensured fidelity to her husband and kept her out of public life.

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