Footbinding was specific to and unique to traditional Chinese culture. Its various names conveyed its multifaceted image in Chinese eyes: chanzu (binding feet) called attention to the mundane action of swaddling the body with a piece of cloth; gongwan (curved arch) described a desired shape of the foot similar to that of a ballerina in pointe shoe; jinlian (golden lotus, also gilded lilies) evoked a utopian image of the body that was the subject of fantastical transformation. A related poetic expression of lianbu (lotus steps) suggested that foot-binding was intended to enhance the grace of the body in motion, not to cripple the woman.
The much-maligned practice has often been compared to corsetry as evidence that women were oppressed in cultures East and West, modern and traditional. The comparison is apt albeit for different reasons. The goal of both practices was to modify the female figure with strips of carefully designed and precisely positioned fabric, and in so doing alter the way the wearer projected herself into the world. During its millennium-long history, footbinding acquired various cultural meanings: as a sign of status, civility, Han Chinese ethnicity, and femininity. But at its core it was a means of body modification, hence its history should be sought from the foundational garments of binding cloth, socks, and soft-heeled slippers.
The materials needed for binding feet were specialized articles made by women (binding cloth, socks, and shoes) together with sewing implements readily available in the boudoir (scissors, needle, and thread). Alum and medicinal powder were sprinkled between the toes as an astringent. Women often wove the cotton binding cloth; its average width was three inches, and its length ranged from seven to ten inches. Skillful wrapping of the cloth allowed the woman to reshape the foot into desirable shapes in accordance to footwear fashion. The method and style of binding feet varied greatly with geography, age, and occasion. A moderate way involved compressing the four digits into a pointy and narrow tip; an extreme regiment required both the folding of the digits and the bending of the foot at midpoint into an arch. The tendons and extensors of the toes were stretched to the point of breakage, but the breakage did not, at least in theory, require fracturing the bones. The binding of feet altered the shape of the foot and the woman's gait. Slender slippers and dainty steps signified class and desirability.
Similar to tattooing, footbinding bespeaks an attitude that viewed the body as a canvas or a template—a surface or "social skin" on which cultural meanings could be inscribed. Yet the effect of binding was more than skin deep. It signaled an extreme form of self-improvement and mastery; the contemporary body-piercer's motto of "no pain, no gain" is equally apt for Chinese women.
Unlike tattooing and body-piercing, however, foot-binding was only practiced by females, and its connections with the female handicraft traditions of textile, embroidery, and shoemaking rendered it a quintessential sign of feminine identity. It is paradoxical that footbinding, supposedly a signal of the woman's family status as "conspicuous leisure," was in itself a result and expression of a strenuous form of female labor.
The earliest material evidence for the binding of feet is several pairs of shoes from twelfth- to thirteenth-century tombs in south-central China. Scholar Zhang Bangji (fl. 1147) provided the first known textual reference to foot-binding as an actual practice: "Women's footbinding began in the recent times; it was not mentioned in any books from the previous eras." By the twelfth century, foot-binding was a common but by no means mandatory practice among the wives and daughters of high-status men, as well as courtesans and actresses who entertained this same group of privileged scholar-officials.
Song-dynasty China (960–1279) enjoyed a prosperous commercialized economy. The Northern Song capital of Kaifeng and the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, with populations of over a million each, were the largest cities in the world at the time. Indeed, historians have suggested that the beginnings of Chinese modernity can be traced back to the Song. A taste for novelty, together with status-anxiety—the same factors that gave rise to fashion in early modern Europe—also facilitated the birth of footbinding. Adoration for small feet ran deep in Chinese culture: the story of Ye Xian, China's Cinderella, appeared in a ninth-century story collection Youyang zazu (Ko, pp. 26–27), and poets eulogized dainty steps and fancy footwear from the sixth to tenth centuries. But these fantasies gave rise to the actual practice of binding feet only in the urban culture that emerged after the fall of the Tang aristocratic empire.
The style of women's shoes from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries conforms to two subtypes: one is long and narrow with pointy toes, like a kayak; the other, with turned-up toes, is like a canoe with a high stem. These shoes are made of monochrome silk and decorated with embroidered abstract floral or cloud patterns. The length of archaeological specimens ranges from 5.9 inches to 9.4 inches (15 to 24 cm). Both styles feature flat fabric soles, suggesting that in this early stage women swaddled their four digits together with a binding cloth to achieve a sleek, pointy look.
Paintings show these pointy toes or the more dramatic upturned toes peeking out from long, flowing silk trousers, creating an aesthetic of subdued feminine elegance. The most credible origin myth attributes foot-binding to Yaoniang, a dancer in the court of the last ruler Li Yu (r. 969–975) of the Southern Tang kingdom, who beguiled Li with her graceful dance and shoes that "curl up like the new moon." In the beginning, foot-binding was not meant to cripple.
The Cult of the Golden Lotus
A more extreme regime of beauty arose around the sixteenth century with the invention of high heels. One type of shoes was elevated on a cylindrical heel; another featured a curved sole supported by a piece of silk-covered wood from the heel area to the instep. Not only did heels afford an optical illusion of smallness, they also enabled an extreme way of binding that pushed the base of the metatarsal bones and the adjoining cuneiforms upward, forming a bulge on the top of the foot. A crevice was formed on the sole due to the compression of the fifth metatarsal bone toward the calcaneus or heel bone. The high heel redirected the wearer's body weight into a tripod-like area consisting of the tip of the big toe, the bent toes, and the back of the heel. However unsteadily, heeled footwear provided better support for the triangular foot than flats.
This strenuous regimen bespeaks heightened female competition in a fashion-conscious society. In the sixteenth century, the Ming Empire (1368–1644) enjoyed the largest trade surplus in the world. Buoyed by a net inflow of New World silver, the money economy spread to the countryside. In a world of material abundance and social fluidity, there was intense pressure on women to display the status of their fathers and husbands. The incessant drive for small feet and their attendant eroticization in this atmosphere gave rise to a cult of the golden lotus.
Female footwear—often store-bought—became fanciful. Some women hired famous carpenters to carve their heels, often of fragrant wood. Floral cutouts were made on the surface of hollowed heels; perfumed powder inside the heels would leave traces of blossoms on the floor as the wearer shifted her steps. The shoe uppers were fashioned from red, white, or green silk with increasingly elaborate embroidered motifs of auspicious symbols. The earlier flat socks evolved into contoured and footed soft "sleeping slippers" which women wore to bed on top of the binding cloth. The erotic appeal of the golden lotus was wrought of layered footwear as instruments of concealment.
Even at the heyday of the cult, many women did not have bound feet. Footbinding was more a privilege than a requirement. Women of Manchu descent, an ethnic minority group, eschewed footbinding, as did Hakka women, who shouldered back-breaking manual labor. After the Manchus became the rulers of China in 1644, they issued prohibition edicts that only served to make foot-binding more popular among the subjugated Han Chinese majority.
The Anti-Footbinding Movement
The decline of footbinding can be attributed to internal and external factors. Domestically, it became a victim of its own success. As footbinding spread geographically outward and socially downward during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), it lost its raison d'être and ceased to be a sign of exclusivity. Externally, Christian missionaries and merchants brought an imported concept of the natural God-given body as well as a new sartorial regime in the second half of the nineteenth century. Footbinding became so dated that it was synonymous with "feudal and backward China" in the Republican period (1912–1949). Although coastal women gave up the practice in the early decades of the twentieth century, girls in the remote southwestern province of Yunnan were forced to stop by the Communist regime only in the 1950s.
The Fetishism of Bound Feet and Tiny Shoes
William Rossi has suggested the bound foot was "the organ of ultimate sexual pleasure"; the soft fleshy cleavage on the underside of the foot was "the equivalent of the labia" for men (pp. 29–30). Although this view is corroborated by Chinese erotic paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no premodern Chinese sources depict footbinding in this light.
Novels, poetry, and prose by premodern Chinese male scholars suggest that embroidered slippers and partially undressed, but still concealed, feet served as the locus of their erotic imagination. The first credible connoisseur of bound feet was the Yuan dynasty scholar-poet Yang Weizhen (also known as Yang Tieya, 1296–1370), who in his later years retired from the court and dallied in the garden city of Suzhou. To add to the merry-making, Yang drank from wine cups fashioned from courtesans' tiny shoes. Brothel drinking games involving the tiny shoe persisted and became more fanciful, as evinced by the connoisseur Fang Xuan's (probably a pseudonym) treatises first published in the last decade of the Qing dynasty (Levy, pp. 107–120).
The connoisseur Li Yu (c. 1610–1680)—no relation to the Southern Tang ruler—described the sexual appeal of the bound foot in both visual and tactile terms. In a bedroom scene in Li's erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, the protagonist Vesperus removed all the clothes of Jade Scent but left her leggings on, because "in the last resort tiny feet need a pair of dainty little leggings above them if they are going to appeal" (p. 50). Li recounted his own experience of removing courtesans' stockings to fondle feet so soft that they feel "boneless" in an essay collection, Casual Expressions of Idle Feeling. Presumably the binding cloth was not removed. Li added: "Lying in bed with them, it is hard to stop fondling their golden lotus. No other pleasures of dallying with courtesans can surpass this experience" (Hanan, p. 68).
The most vivid Chinese account of the fetishism of shoes and feet during the height of the cult of the golden lotus is the erotic novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, first published in 1618. Presiding over a polygynist household, the protagonist Simen Qing is the paragon of male privileges and excesses. Females vie to get his attention, hence their heart's desires, by a parade of tiny shoes they designed and assembled. Simen was partial to red sleeping slippers; his love for them—and their wearer—was transference for his own desire to wear red shoes (chapter 28). Simen, a merchant, personifies the commodity culture that enabled new economies of pleasure and desire in seventeenth-century China.
Chinese fetishism assumes different meanings than that which crystallized in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, in part because the association of pleasure and guilt is absent in Confucian morality. But in China as in Europe, the fetishism of the foot found its most graphic expression in the spectacular details lavished onto high heel shoes. As a vessel for wine, plaything, or token of exchange, embroidered slippers were receptacles of boundless fantasy.
The very subject of footbinding has been fetishized in the West. As a stand-in for the exotic and erotic Orient, footbinding has continued to fascinate modern observers and collectors after its demise in China as a social practice.
Ironically, on the eve of footbinding's decline, the paraphernalia of footbinding reached the height of its glory, surpassing previous centuries in rapidity of stylistic changes and ornamental techniques. Each region developed its own distinct footwear styles. New genres of patterns, snow clogs, and rain boots served the growing number of working-class women with bound feet. Footwear innovation continued into the 1920s and 30s, when women with bound feet updated their wardrobes with such Western styles as the Mary Jane, fastened with buttons and flesh-colored silk stockings.
In sum, there is not one footbinding but many. During each stage of its development the way of binding, shoe styles, social background of the women and their incentives are different; the regional diversities are also pronounced. But in the final analysis, the binding of feet was always motivated by a utopian impulse to overcome the body and to elevate one's status in the world.
Feng, Jicai. Three-Inch Golden Lotus. Translated by David Wakefield. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A realistic novella that explores the complex female psychology during the anti-footbinding period.
Hanan, Patrick. The Invention of Li Yu. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1988. An introduction to the life and times of Li Yu, maverick writer and connoisseur of bound feet.
Ko, Dorothy. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. Includes an illustrated chart of regional footwear styles and a discussion of shoemaking tools.
Levy, Howard S. Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom. Taipei: Nantian shuju, 1984. A convenient summary of the six-volume Caifei lu, a Chinese encyclopedia on foot-binding, and early Japanese scholarship on the subject.
Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Translated by Patrick Hanan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P'ing Mei. Volume 2: The Rivals. Translated by David Tod Roy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Rossi, William A. The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe. Ware, Hertfordshire, U.K.: Wordsworth Editions, 1989.
Wang, Ping. Aching for Beauty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. A Chinese woman's poetic evocation of the male and female desires that sustained the thousand-year custom.
Zhang, Bangji. Mozhuang manlü. In Congshu jicheng chubian, nos. 2864–2866. Changsha: Shangwu, 1939.