A high caste lady's dainty 'lily feet' – as they really were – in China
”When a Celestial takes into his hand a woman's foot, especially if it is very small, the effect upon him is precisely the same as is provoked in a European by a young and firm bosom. All the Celestials whom I have interrogated on this point have replied unanimously: "Oh, a little foot! You Europeans cannot understand how exquisite, how sweet, how exciting it is!" ~Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty
Women have done many things for beauty throughout the course of history – from indifferently using arsenic or lead-based cosmetics, to ear and other body piercings, to yet more extreme forms of body modification. One of the most agonizingly painful of such practices is the Chinese custom of foot binding, where the feet of women – typically young girls – were broken and bound until they were able to fit inside a tiny shoe.
The so-called 'lily feet' (right) contrasted with the natural feet of Chinese women in Canton (now Guangzhou), China
Cultural and Sexual Impact
For around a thousand years in China, tiny bound feet were considered highly erotic, and the resulting 'lotus gait' – caused by the women needing to walk on their heels in a unsteady, 'mincing' manner – was not only arousing for men but thought to make the sexual anatomy “more voluptuous and sensitive”. During the Qing Dynasty, love manuals apparently detailed 48 different ways of fondling a woman’s bound feet.
Showing the deformation: The shoe was worn on the great toe only
However, even while in bed – and even if otherwise totally naked – women wore special slippers to conceal their deformed extremities. The attraction seems to have lain in what was hidden from view (a notion that also applied more broadly to the women themselves). A famous quote by Feng Xun encapsulated the thinking: “If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever.”
Bound feet unbound
Yet the impact of bound feet was felt far beyond the private domain of the bedroom and sexuality – although the practice was doubtless a means of male domination to ensure women remained chaste. Women whose feet were bound were unable to participate freely in society – to go on outings on their own, for example – with feet so severely disfigured. They frequently needed the physical support of another person if they were to walk for any length of time, and this kept them dependent on their families, subject to the will of men around them, and often all but confined to their homes.
The crippled, naked feet of a Chinese woman without her 3-inch shoes
With the weight of culture and tradition behind the practice, women in China themselves upheld foot binding, believing it promoted health and fertility, in spite of the crippling pain they suffered. The practice also took the perceived biological disadvantage of being born as a woman and turned it into a social advantage in terms of the marital opportunities it offered. Women with unbound feet were highly unlikely to enter into a prestigious marriage: those of the upper classes would have to marry ‘down’ while those of lower social status risked being sold into slavery.
X-ray of bound feet, China
"There are a thousand buckets of tears for one who binds her feet." ~old saying
Much of the stigma attached to foot binding in modern societies stems from the incredibly painful process that women had to undergo in order for the delicate ‘golden lotus’ foot to be attained. It generally began before the arch of the foot had developed properly – when the girl was between the ages of two and five. After the feet were soaked in a warm, softening mixture of herbs and animal blood, they were next massaged while the cotton bandages were prepared. Next, the toes were curled under the foot and then forcefully broken with great pressure.
A 'lily footed' woman of China
After this agonizing start, the procedure continued in a similar vein: the foot was brought level with the leg and the arch broken by force. Only then was the binding itself begun, with the bandages repeatedly wrapped around the feet, pressing the broken toes tightly against the sole of the foot, and squeezing the ball and heel together. Finally, the ends of the bandages were sewn tightly so that they could not be undone.
The feet would then regularly be unbound, washed and kneaded, with additional pain often caused by beating the sole of the foot to keep the bones broken. The feet were then rebound – ever more tightly each time. Whenever the binding session was over, the girl was immediately forced to walk on her feet to crush them further. Needless to say, none of this was carried out with anesthetic.
Professional foot binders – or else elder members of the girl’s family – were sometimes employed, as it was feared the girl’s mother would be more likely to bind the feet loosely. Said binder would also break the toes more severely, the better to attain the ideal: a three-inch-long foot. The process itself took around two years, but the feet would stay bound for life.
As well as the excruciating pain of the binding itself, the feet were commonly prone to other complications – from swelling and pus-filled sores in the early stages of the treatment, to paralysis and serious infections such as gangrene. The feet were bathed in liquids ranging from scented water to urine in efforts to prevent odor and infection or to reduce swelling. What’s more, if the feet were left unbound for any length of time, the pain the woman experienced could be just as severe as that caused by the original binding.
Interestingly, it is believed that foot binding did not originate as a practice that was meant to deform the feet but rather was used as a temporary measure to aid in dance – much as ballet shoes are used today. Around 970 A.D., the consort of Emperor Li Yu of the Tang Dynasty performed a dance on a ‘golden lotus’ pedestal, wrapping her feet in silken cloths. The ruler was so entranced by the beauty of the movement that other women in the court imitated the look.
From here, the practice spread to become a fashion among the upper classes and eventually reached all strata of society such that the bodily modification became widespread. During the reign of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1276), the status of women dropped, meaning they had fewer rights within the contexts of marriage and the family. They were not educated as they had been, were stripped of the right to possess wealth, and were themselves generally treated as little more than property. Foot binding as a method of control thus found new force.
Despite the prevalence of foot binding, there was never a complete consensus on how it should be practiced. For example, peasants and others of the lower classes were more likely to bind their feet later in life – and not as tightly – as they needed to be more mobile to be able to work in the fields. For upper class women, the ‘treatment’ tended to be more extreme.
Yet, however foot binding was practiced, the deformity and the excruciating pain inflicted were facts of life that, for a millennium, Chinese women were forced to suffer through.
In 1911, the Chinese government finally outlawed foot binding. Pressure had come not only from feminists but also from educated people concerned about how China was viewed by the outside world, as well as from Social Darwinists worried about the idea of an enfeebled nation. Even after this, however, much work was needed to undo the entrenched idea of the lotus foot as erotic and lovely. Today, although as a practice foot binding has died out, one can still see elderly women hobbling around on broken feet, all in the name of past notions of beauty.