What Was The Practice Of Footbinding In China?

Chinese Footbinding

When I first traveled to China in the mid-1980s, I would sometimes see women hobbling down the street with little tiny feet because their feet have been bound. These little old ladies were almost completely crippled and could hardly walk.

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Footbinding was the Chinese practice of breaking the young girls’ feet and tightly wrapped their feet so that their feet would not grow to be large. Many women who had their feet bound were disabled their entire lives. Footbinding was practiced throughout China for about 1,000 years. Chinese rulers tried to stop the practice throughout China’s history, but it was not successfully stopped until the 20th Century.

Footbinding – The Painful Way To Get Small Feet

Footbinding was the Chinese custom of breaking the Chinese girls’ feet and then tightly binding her feet to change her feet’ shape and size. When it was practiced, the small tiny feet were considered a status symbol and a mark of beauty.

In some cases, footbinding showed the status of the family. These girls and women often had to be carried around their entire lives as they could not walk. To afford that, the families would need some substance and money.

The tiny feet were considered a mark of beauty. The tiny footbound feet were called “lotus feet,” and the tiny shoes made for the feet were called “lotus shoes.” Many believe that footbinding helped the Chinese girl to have a higher prospect of marriage.

The process of foot binding was excruciatingly painful. In many cases, it led to extreme discomfort while walking as the women could not really ever walk properly. Many of the women that had their feet bound had lifelong disabilities. Many had to be carried around their entire life.

History of Footbinding

Many may ask why in the world would any Chinese parent want to put their daughters through the painful process of footbinding? Why would they want to have their daughters be purposely disabled for the rest of their lives?

Like most things in Asia, it is not a very simple question to answer. Footbinding was deeply entrenched in the Chinese culture for over a thousands years. Many times throughout China’s history, rulers tried to ban foot binding but failed to do so.

In 1660, the Emperor of China attempted to ban all footbinding but could not do so. In the late 19th century, Chinese leaders also tried to change footbinding and failed. It was not until the 20th century that the practice of footbinding began to dwindle out. Part of the reasons many of the anti-footbinding campaigns failed was because it was too entrenched in the Chinese culture.

The practice of footbinding goes as far back as 1100 A.D., when some Chinese poems allude to the practice of foot binding. But even in the early times, Chinese scholars criticized the practice. In the 13th Century, the scholar Che Ruo Shui wrote one of the first known criticism of foot binding when we wrote:

“Little girls not yet four of five years old, who have done nothing wrong, nevertheless are made to suffer unlimited pain to bind (their feet) small. I do not know what use this is.”

Che Ruo Shui

Despite the criticism, footbinding remained popular for hundreds of years in many parts of China. Some China leaders tried to ban it, and others encourage it, but it remained a practice in China for about 1,000 years.

Some China leaders saw foot binding as a practice that they should encourage; other leaders who were more reform-minded saw footbinding as a practice that needed to be eliminated. With many things in China, it is hard to eliminate something entrenched in the Chinese culture as footbinding; this is why it took such a long time for footbinding to be completely eradicated from Chinese culture.

A 1928 survey in one northern province in China showed that girls born before 1910 that only 2.3% did not have bound feet, but for girls born after 1910, about 95% did not have found feet. So we can say that footbinding in China started to change after 1910.

Footbinding Process and Facts

There is no doubt that footbinding was a painful, terrible practice. Here are a few facts about the Chinese footbinding practice:

  • The foot binding process started before the foot’s arch had a chance to fully develop, usually between ages 4 and 9 years old.
  • The footbinding was usually done in the winter months due to the cold weather, the feet were more likely to be numb, and the pain of binding the feet would not be so extreme.
  • The feet were soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften up the feet and help with the binding.
  • The girl’s toenails would be cut back as far as possible to prevent the in-growth of the toenails or any infections.
  • The toes would be pressed tightly against the soles of the feet. The toes were purposely broken in the process to be pressed against the sole.
  • The feet of the girls would be unbound frequently to wash and to take care of the feet. But each time they were rebound and wrapped even tighter.
  • Most bound feet became numb, so the bound women eventually had no feeling in their feet.
  • Attempting to reverse the bound feet was excruciating. To reverse the procedure, they would need to go through all the pain all over again.
  • The most common issues with bound feet were infections.
  • One common infection was with the toenails so in some cases they would take off the toenails.
  • The binding cut off all circulation to the feet area, which also hurt the overall health and circulation.
  • Many times the bones would remain broken for years. So the girls would literally need to try to walk around on these tiny broken feet for years.
  • Sometimes the bones in the feet would be purposely rebroken a few times to try to change the foot’s shape and make the foot even smaller.
  • In some cases, paralysis and muscular atrophy arose due to the foot binding.

Even though it has been a long time since China has practice foot binding, it is important to understand this part of China’s history. One of the reasons it is important is that foot binding was a part of the Chinese culture and society for almost 1000 years.

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Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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Chinese Footbinding