In China foot binding has had a diverse and often contentious history. Although the practice originated in the middle to late tenth century, over time, women's small feet came to symbolize many female-related qualities, including weakness, brokenness, passivity, delicacy, and sensuality. Writers throughout the history of China often contemplated the many dualistic qualities of bound feet: They were both animalistic (like a hoof) and a symbol of aristocratic refinement, domesticating and frivolous, erotic and virtuous, painful and beautiful. The primary symbol associated with bound feet is the lotus blossom. This further complicates interpretations of them because the lotus is both a sign of Buddhist piety and a poetic allusion to a range of sensual and erotic pleasures. Contemporary interest in foot binding shows that scholars continue to find the practice a useful entryway into various aspects of Chinese culture and its representations in literature.
The cultural preference for small feet and elegant walking in China can be traced back to the twenty-first century bce, and there are many possible origins for the practice of foot binding. For example, the ruler of the Qi kingdom in 499–501 ce, Xiao Baojian, marveled when his consort stepped on golden leaves shaped into lotus blossoms: "Every step a lotus." There is also the story of Yexian, the Chinese Cinderella, first recorded in the ninth century ce: She drops a tiny shoe while returning from a banquet she attended in disguise, eventually leading to a royal marriage. Poet Han Wo (844–c. 923) wrote "Ode to the Slippers," which compared women's feet to lotuses and praised feet precisely six inches long. During the Tang dynasty (618–907) dancers from outside China who bound their feet entertained the court, perhaps inspiring palace women to imitate them.
However, there is general scholarly agreement that foot binding began in the court of Li Yu (reigned 961–975) in the interval between the Tang and Northern Song (960–1127) dynasties. The legendary first foot binder was Yao Niang, Li's favorite concubine, who danced on a gilded stage in her socks. By the end of the tenth century the practice of foot binding had begun at court, and the literary image of bound feet, often referred to as lotus flowers, was firmly established in Chinese storytelling and poetry.
At the end of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) women aimed for four-inch-long feet. The Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) loved bound feet, and natural unbound feet became a source of shame. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the three-inch-long foot was the standard for courtly beauty, elegance, and femininity. Chinese peasant and servant women generally had unbound feet until the middle to late eighteenth century, when cotton production became widespread and women at all social levels were able to make binding and shoemaking cloth in large quantities.
Between 1860 and 1930 European and North American missionaries and Chinese reformers worked to end foot binding; photographers began taking pictures of women with nude bound feet, breaking a significant taboo against viewing them. The Chinese reformer Kang Youwei (1858–1927) founded the Do Not Bind Feet Society in 1883 and in 1898 drafted a letter asking the emperor of Guangxu province to end the practice. Reformers argued that foot binding was a symbol of national weakness and backwardness, whereas unbound feet symbolized national strength and modernity. As a result of the work of those reformers, the significant increase in women doing factory instead of farm labor, the Japanese invasion, and World War II, the practice mostly had ended by the early 1940s. In 1949, the Communist Party banned foot binding, as the practice limited women's ability to perform agricultural labor. The last factory making lotus shoes ceased producing them in 1999.
FEET AND SHOES
Although the cultural meanings of foot binding were diverse, there was a standard process for creating small feet. Mothers would begin binding their daughters' feet when the girls were around seven years old. Women would sprinkle their feet with alum powder and then take a binding cloth two to four inches wide and ten to thirteen feet long and wind it tightly around the foot, repeatedly folding under four toes (leaving the big toe pointing upward), drawing the heel and toes as close together as possible, and sewing together the ends of the cloth. Foot binding had three effects: It shortened the length of the foot, reduced the width of the sole, and reshaped the foot to produce an arched bulge on the instep and a deep crevice under the arch. Foot binding re-formed the foot by bending and stretching its ligaments and tendons, but without breaking the bones.
The shoes women made for themselves and others contained rich imagery. Embroidery on the sides of the shoes would depict stories or symbols such as the lotus flower. Brides to be would make shoes for all their female in-laws. There were different shoes for weddings, sleeping, longevity (blue fabric), and mourning (white or cream fabric). Children's shoes often had the faces of their birth-year animals on the toes. The bindings and shoes never came off in front of men, and allowing men to touch or see nude feet was taboo, resulting in shame and loss of face. Men considered touching the shoes or covered feet of their wives or concubines erotic.
Recent scholarship remains divided about how to understand foot binding in the history of Chinese literature and culture. Scholars differ over how to use one of the primary sources of foot binding oral history, photographs, poetry, and prose: the five volumes of Caifeilu (translated as Records of Gathering Fragrance or Picking Radishes). Those books were edited in the late 1930s by Yao Lingxi, who was a self-described lotus addict trying to preserve the remnants of a vanishing practice. Scholars such as Ping Wang and Dorothy Ko also disagree about the usefulness of various interpretive approaches for studying foot binding, such as psychoanalytic, feminist, gender, subaltern, and literary theories. As foot binding allows for the study of interrelated aspects of Chinese culture such as gender relationships, sexuality, power, the body, labor, and clothing, there is no doubt that literature pertaining to and photographs of the practice, as well as exhibitions of shoes, will continue to draw audiences.
Ko, Dorothy. 2001. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ko, Dorothy. 2005. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Foot Binding. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wang, Ping. 2000. Aching for Beauty: Foot Binding in China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Donna J. Drucker