For over a thousand years, tiny feet were symbols of feminine beauty, elegance, and sexuality in China. In order to achieve the goal of tiny three-inch "lotus feet" (the lotus was a kind of flower), most young Chinese girls had their feet bound tightly with strips of cloth to prevent growth. Once the process was completed, the deformed feet were placed into beautiful, embroidered lotus shoes, tiny pointed slippers that were made especially for bound feet. Though no one knows exactly when foot binding began, the practice dates back at least to 900 C.E. and continued in remote areas until the twentieth century.
There are many legends about the origins of binding women's feet. Some say that noblewomen, those of the wealthy classes, began to imitate one of the emperor's mistresses who had very tiny feet. Others say that the emperor forced his mistress to bind her feet and dance for him on the tops of lotus flowers. However it began, by the tenth century the practice had become widespread among the upper classes of China. Foot binding began when a girl was between three and seven years old and was usually done by her mother. The four smaller toes were bent back, and often broken, to rest against the sole of the foot. A strip of cloth, about ten feet long and two inches wide, was wrapped around the foot tightly, forcing it to become both narrower and shorter. As the foot became shorter, the heel and toes were pulled closer together, making the foot into a curved arc. After two years of constantly tighter binding, the foot was the perfect size: three to four inches long. This broken foot was given the romantic name of lotus or lily foot.
At first foot binding was a symbol of wealth and luxury. Because the bound foot was very painful and likely to become infected, bound feet required constant care. Also, women with bound feet were almost helpless. They could hardly walk without help, much less work or help around the house. Therefore, bound feet were reserved at first for those families who could afford to support such a woman. However, by the 1600s the lower classes had begun to imitate the rich, and foot binding had spread to all classes except the extremely poor. Among the working class, girls who needed to work might not get their feet bound until later in their childhood, and the binding might be somewhat looser than that of the upper classes. Many women did not want to bind their young daughters' feet because they knew how much pain it would cause them. Small feet were almost a requirement for a good marriage, however, and almost all women had some form of the disabling binding.
Foot binding damaged women's feet and limited their ability to move freely. Many people believe this was the real reason behind the practice. Much like the Indian practice of purdah, or covering the entire body in clothes, foot binding prevented women from leaving the house very often and therefore kept them under their husband's control. In the late 1800s some women formed an Anti-Foot Binding Society. Members of the society agreed not to bind their daughters' feet and not to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.
Though they could do little work, women with bound feet could sew and embroider, and many spent long hours making special richly embroidered lotus shoes. Because the bound feet were unattractive and often foul smelling from infection, they were never exposed to public view. Perfume, socks, leggings, and lotus shoes were worn at all times, even in bed, to cover the damaged feet with beauty and delicacy.
Many historians estimate that over a billion Chinese women endured foot binding. Though the Chinese Republic outlawed the practice in 1911, it continued in many remote rural areas until the People's Republic of China began in 1949. Many older Chinese women still have bound feet, though the last factory that made lotus shoes stopped manufacturing them during the 1990s. The practice still arouses feelings of horror among women of all nationalities. In 1995 Gump's department store in San Francisco, California, offered antique lotus shoes for sale for $975 a pair but was forced to remove the display due to a storm of customer complaints.
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Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.