The Horrific Practice of Chinese Foot Binding
Women have done many things for beauty throughout history – from indifferently using arsenic or lead-based cosmetics, suffering broken ribs from over-binding corsets for a smaller waist, to yet more extreme forms of body modification. One of the most agonizingly painful of such practices is the Chinese custom of foot binding. This required the feet of young women, most typically young girls, to be broken and bound until they were able to fit inside a tiny shoe. The ideal was a three-inch-long foot. The process itself took around two years, but the feet would stay bound for life.
The tradition was believed to have begun around 970 AD when 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.
For over a thousand years, tiny bound feet were considered highly erotic, and the resulting ‘lotus gait’ – caused by 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. However even while in bed, women wore special slippers to conceal them.
Chinese women upheld foot binding believing it promoted health and fertility, in spite of the crippling pain they suffered. The practice also took the perceived disadvantage of being born a woman and turned it into a social advantage in terms of the marital opportunities it afforded. Women with unbound feet were highly unlikely to enter into a prestigious marriage, forcing those of the upper classes to ‘marry down’ while those of lower social status risked being sold into slavery. Women with bound feet were the ‘lily footed’ ladies of Chinese society. Fortunately, the Chinese government outlawed foot binding in 1911. A thousand years of women with bound feet.