Small Feet of the Chinese Females

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Small Feet of the Chinese Females

Remarks on the Origin of the Custom of Compressing the Feet; the Extent and Effects of the Practice; with an Anatomical Description of a Small Foot

Journal article

By: Anonymous

Date: 1835

Source: "Small feet of the Chinese females: remarks on the origin of the custom of compressing the feet; the extent and effects of the practice; with an anatomical description of a small foot." Chinese Repository. 3 (1835): 537-539.

About the Author: The article was written without author acknowledgement for Chinese Repository, a Protestant missionary journal that operated from 1832 through 1851. Its readership was composed of missionaries, ministers, and lay persons with an interest in international issues surrounding mission work.


The Chinese practice of footbinding has been traced back as far as the Shang era (1600–1046 b.c.e.), but gained popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.–a.d. 220). The procedure, outlawed in China in 1911, was part of Chinese upper class and imperial society for more than 2000 years.

A properly bound foot involved breaking the arch of the foot and curling the toes inward and under the insole; the result was a foot that resembled a "golden lotus," a symbol of the perfect, delicate and feminine foot. Mothers performed the footbinding in most cases. During infancy, young girls of the upper and imperial class would begin to have their feet bound. First the foot was soaked in hot water and then massaged; the mother molded the toes under and wrapped the foot with bandages. A proper binding broke the four small toes, leaving the big toe in place to permit balance while walking. As the foot grew, the bindings continued, with the goal of creating a foot no longer than four inches when the girl reached full growth as a woman.

A painful process, footbinding also left the girl prone to infection, gangrene, and severe joint problems. Approximately ten percent of all girls subjected to the procedure died from infection.

Footbinding was a class-based procedure; peasant women generally did not have bound feet, although there were exceptions. Once the footbinding process was complete, the woman could take tiny steps and was incapable of field work, shopping, or walking distances of more than a few hundred feet at a time. Decorative, delicately bound feet were a status symbol for the rich and those families who served at court. A wife with bound feet was considered a source of pride and an example of wealth and prosperity for many Chinese men.

By the 1600s, footbinding was accepted practice in the upper classes, and at times peasant families chose to follow the practice with the hope that their daughters could marry into the higher classes. When the expected marriage did not come through, however, these peasant women were disabled and experienced great difficulty caring for themselves or others. Peasant men did not want them, for they could not work or walk. Only those men who could afford to support a woman who provided no assistance to the household could have a wife with bound feet.

Westerners who entered China in the 1800s, and especially Christian missionaries, considered the practice of footbinding to be barbaric. Footbinding reached its peak in the 1800s, converging with the influx of Christian missionaries. In this passage, from a journal devoted to Chinese missionary work, a Christian missionary in China in 1835 gives his account of footbinding from a western perspective.


Art. I. Small feet of the Chinese females: remarks on the origin of the custom of compressing the feet; the extent and effects of the practice; with an anatomical description of a small foot.

Ample evidence of the inefficiency of the ethical systems of the Chinese, is found in their national and domestic customs. Not only the minds of the people, but their bodies also, are distorted and deformed by unnatural usages; and those laws, physical as well as moral, which the Creator designed for the good of his creatures, are perverted, and, if possible, would be annihilated. The truth of these remarks is presented to our view in a clear light by the anatomical description, which forms a part of this article. Historians are not agreed as to the time or place in which the practice of compressing the feet originated. Du Halde states, but on what authority he does not inform us, that the practice originated with the infamous Take, the last empress of the Shang dynasty, who perished in its overthrow, B.C. 1123. "Her own feet being very small, she bound them tight with fillets, affecting to make that pass for a beauty which was really a deformity. However, the women all followed her example; and this ridiculous custom is so thoroughly established, that to have feet of the natural size is enough to render them contemptible." Again, the same author remarks, "The Chinese themselves are not certain what gave rise to this odd custom. The story current among us, which attributes the invention to the ancient Chinese, who, to oblige their wives to keep at home, are said to have brought little feet into fashion, is by some looked upon as fabulous. The far greater number think it to be a political design, to keep women in continual subjection. It is certain that they are extremely confined, and seldom stir out of their apart-ments, which are in the most retired place in the house; having no communication with any but the women-servants." Others state that the custom originated in the time of the woo tae, or "five dynasties," about A.D. 925. According to the native historian, quoted in Morrison's View of China, "it is not known when the small feet of females were introduced. It is said that the custom arose in the time of the five dynasties. Le Howchoo ordered his concubine, Yaou, to bind her feet with silk, and cause them to appear small, and in the shape of the new moon. From this, sprung the imitation of every other female."

In regard to the extent and effects of the practice, there is not the same degree of uncertainty. It prevails more or less throughout the whole empire, but only among the Chinese. The Tartar ladies do not yield to the cruel custom, but allow their feet to retain their natural form. In the largest towns and cities, and generally in the most fashionable parts of the country, a majority of the females have their feet compressed. In some places, as many as seven or eight in ten are tormented in this way; in other places, the number is not more than four or five in ten. The operation of compressing the feet is commenced in infancy; and so closely and constantly are the bandages applied, in the most successful cases, as to prevent almost entirely the growth and extension of the limb. Ladies of rank and taste, who are fashioned in this manner, are rendered quite unable to walk. The effects of this process are extremely painful. Children will often tear away the bandages in order to gain relief from the torture; but their temporary removal, it is said, greatly increase the pain by causing a violent revulsion of the blood to the feet. This violent compression of the limbs, moreover, is injurious to health, and renders the victim a cripple through life. In some cases the compression is very slight, and consequently the effect is less hurtful. It is no marvel that the Chinese ladies never dance; it is rather a matter of surprise that they can move at all on such ill shaped and distorted members; some of which, scarcely if at all, exceed two and a half inches in length. Those who can avoid it, seldom appear abroad except in sedans; (we speak of those in the neighborhood of Canton;) but there are frequent cases, among the poorer classes, where the unhappy victims of this barbarous custom are compelled to walk on their little feet. Their gait appears exceedingly awkward to others, and must be painful to themselves. Generally, in attempting to walk any considerable distance, they find a stick, or the shoulder of a matron or servant girl, a necessary support. In walking, the body is bent forwards at a considerable inclination, in order to place the centre of gravity over the feet; and the great muscular exertion required for preserving the balance is evinced by the rapid motion of the arms, and the hobbling shortness of the steps. The form of these "golden lilies," kin leën, as the Chinese call them, is accurately described in the following paper, from the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. It was written by Bransby Blake Cooper, esq., surgeon to Guy's hospital; and was communicated to the society by the secretary, P.M. Roget, M.D., March 5th, 1829.

"A specimen of a Chinese foot, the account of which I have the honor to lay before the Royal Society, was removed from the dead body of a female found floating in the river at Canton. On its arrival in England, it was presented to sir Astley Cooper, to whose kindness I am indebted for the opportunity of making this curious dissection. Without entering into an inquiry whether this singular construction, and as we should esteem it hideous deformity, of the Chinese female foot, had its origin in oriental jealousy, or was the result of an unnatural taste in beauty; I shall content myself with describing the remarkable deviations from the original structure, which it almost every-where presents."


Nineteenth century western attitudes toward the Chinese included the supposition that Chinese civilization was backwards and cruel in its treatment of women. Many missionaries viewed footbinding as a character deformity, a cultural tradition that demonstrated Chinese brutality and oppression.

Women of the upper classes with bound feet often lived in cloistered sections of the household, surrounded by female servants, and were expected to partake in activities deemed feminine, such as painting, reading light verse, and memorizing poetry. Their formal education was limited to Confucian basics, and these women, largely ornamental, were trained to be models of restraint and obedience.

The first western missionaries were Catholic Jesuits, who arrived during the 1600s. By the early 1800s, Protestant missionaries entered China, though it was not until the Opium Wars ended in 1842 that Protestants were able to go to China in large numbers.

This article, published four years before the Opium Wars began, therefore, gave western readers one of the few written accounts of Chinese society and footbinding available in the West. The description of the process of footbinding accurately explains in detail the suffering girls experienced with the procedure. Meant to shock, this account reinforces the missionary writer's assertion that "Not only the minds of the people, but their bodies also, are distorted and deformed by unnatural usages; and those laws, physical as well as moral, which the Creator designed for the good of his creatures, are perverted, and, if possible, would be annihilated."

Characterizing Chinese minds and morality as "deformed" and using footbinding as a physical manifestation of this deformity set the stage for western beliefs of Chinese barbarity. In the 1840s, as Chinese immigrants to the United States flooded the west coast during the Gold Rush in California, anti-Chinese sentiment emerged. By the 1880s, after decades of Chinese immigration and the use of Chinese labor to build railroads, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from coming to the United States.

Many male Chinese immigrants who found financial success in the United States married Chinese women with bound feet and brought them to the United States. Having such a wife was considered to be a sign of prestige, though in many cases the husband could not afford to hire servants to help the footbound wife. In cities such as San Francisco, the inability to walk, coupled with little or no household help, made these women isolated prisoners in their own homes.

In 1895, in Shanghai, an anti-footbinding society formed. Its members registered their children with the society to find mates from families who did not adhere to the practice. As China moved away from the imperial system, the practice of footbinding fell further out of favor. China declared footbinding illegal in 1911, though the practice continued in some isolated areas.



Ping, Wang. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. New York: Anchor, 2002.

Ko, Dorothy. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Web sites

Virtual Museum of San Francisco. "Chinese Girl With Bound Feet." 〈〉 (accessed April 3, 2006).