Foot binding
An albumen silver print photograph of a young woman with bound feet; she sits on a chair facing left, her feet - one with a lotus shoe, the other bare - propped up on a stool.
A Chinese woman showing her foot, image by Lai Afong, c. 1870s
Traditional Chinese纏足
Simplified Chinese缠足
Alternative (Min) Chinese name
Traditional Chinese裹腳
Simplified Chinese裹脚

Foot binding (simplified Chinese: 缠足; traditional Chinese: 纏足; pinyin: chánzú), or footbinding, was the Chinese custom of breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls to change their shape and size. Feet altered by footbinding were known as lotus feet and the shoes made for them were known as lotus shoes. In late imperial China, bound feet were considered a status symbol and a mark of feminine beauty. However, footbinding was a painful practice that limited the mobility of women and resulted in lifelong disabilities.

The prevalence and practice of footbinding varied over time and by region and social class.[1] The practice may have originated among court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in 10th-century China and gradually became popular among the elite during the Song dynasty. Footbinding eventually spread to lower social classes by the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Manchu emperors attempted to ban the practice in the 17th century but failed.[2] In some areas, footbinding raised marriage prospects. It has been estimated that by the 19th century 40–50% of all Chinese women may have had bound feet, rising to almost 100% in upper-class Han Chinese women.[3]

In the late 19th century, Christian missionaries and Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that the practice began to die out, following the efforts of anti-footbinding campaigns. Additionally, upper-class and urban women dropped the practice of footbinding sooner than poorer rural women.[4] By 2007, only a small handful of elderly Chinese women whose feet had been bound were still alive.[3]



A black and white stylised illustration of a seated woman, one foot resting on top of her left thigh, wrapping and binding her right foot.
18th-century illustration showing Yao Niang binding her own feet

There are a number of stories about the origin of footbinding before its establishment during the Song dynasty. One of these involves the story of Pan Yunu, a favourite consort of the Southern Qi Emperor Xiao Baojuan. In the story Pan Yunu, renowned for having delicate feet, performed a dance barefoot on a floor decorated with the design of a golden lotus, after which the Emperor, expressing admiration, said that "lotus springs from her every step!" (bù bù shēng lián 歩歩生蓮), a reference to the Buddhist legend of Padmavati, under whose feet lotus springs forth. This story may have given rise to the terms 'golden lotus' or 'lotus feet' used to describe bound feet; there is no evidence, however, that Consort Pan ever bound her feet.[5]

The general view is that the practice is likely to have originated in the time of the 10th-century Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang, just before the Song dynasty.[2] Li Yu created a 1.8-meter-tall (6 ft) golden lotus decorated with precious stones and pearls and asked his concubine Yao Niang (窅娘) to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon and perform a dance on the points of her feet on the lotus.[2] Yao Niang's dance was said to be so graceful that others sought to imitate her.[6] The binding of feet was then replicated by other upper-class women and the practice spread.[7]

Some of the earliest possible references to footbinding appear around 1100, when a couple of poems seemed to allude to the practice.[8][9][10][11] Soon after 1148,[11] in the earliest extant discourse on the practice of footbinding, scholar Zhang Bangji [zh] wrote that a bound foot should be arch shaped and small.[12][13] He observed that "women's footbinding began in recent times; it was not mentioned in any books from previous eras."[11] In the 13th century, scholar Che Ruoshui [zh] wrote the first known criticism of the practice: "Little girls not yet four or 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."[11][14][15]

The earliest archeological evidence for foot binding dates to the tombs of Huang Sheng, who died in 1243 at the age of 17, and Madame Zhou, who died in 1274. Each woman's remains showed feet bound with gauze strips measuring 1.8 m (6 ft) in length. Zhou's skeleton, particularly well preserved, showed that her feet fit into the narrow, pointed slippers that were buried with her.[11] The style of bound feet found in Song dynasty tombs, where the big toe was bent upwards, appears to be different from the norm of later eras, and the excessive smallness of the feet—an ideal known as the 'three-inch golden lotus'—may be a later development in the 16th century.[16][17]

Later eras

Small bound feet were once considered beautiful while large unbound feet were judged as crude.

At the end of the Song dynasty men would drink from a special shoe the heel of which contained a small cup. During the Yuan dynasty some would also drink directly from the shoe itself. This practice was called 'toast to the golden lotus' and lasted until the late Qing dynasty.[18]

The first European to mention footbinding was the Italian missionary Odoric of Pordenone in the 14th century, during the Yuan dynasty.[19] However no other foreign visitors to Yuan China mentioned the practice, including Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo (who nevertheless noted the dainty walk of Chinese women, who took very small steps), perhaps an indication that it was not a widespread or extreme practice at that time.[20] The practice was encouraged by Mongol rulers on their Chinese subjects.[7] The practice became increasingly common among the gentry families, later spreading to the general populace, as commoners and theatre actors alike adopted footbinding. By the Ming period the practice was no longer the preserve of the gentry and had instead become considered a status symbol.[21][22][23] As footbinding restricted the movement of a woman, one side effect of its rising popularity was the corresponding decline of the art of women's dance in China, and it became increasingly rare to hear about beauties and courtesans who were also great dancers after the Song era.[24][25]

A lotus shoe for bound feet, Louise Weiss collection, Saverne

The Manchus issued a number of edicts to ban the practice, first in 1636 when the Manchu leader Hong Taiji declared the founding of the new Qing dynasty, then in 1638, and another in 1664 by the Kangxi Emperor.[21] Few Han Chinese complied with the edicts, and Kangxi eventually abandoned the effort in 1668. By the 19th century, it was estimated that 40–50% of Chinese women had bound feet. Among upper class Han Chinese women, the figure was almost 100%.[3] Bound feet became a mark of beauty and were also a prerequisite for finding a husband. They also became an avenue for poorer women to marry up in some areas, such as Sichuan.[26] In late 19th century Guangdong it was customary to bind the feet of the eldest daughter of a lower-class family who was intended to be brought up as a lady. Her younger sisters would grow up to be bond-servants or domestic slaves and be able to work in the fields, but the eldest daughter would be assumed never to have the need to work. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the 'Golden Lotus', being about three Chinese inches () long—around 11 cm (4.3 in).[27][28] This pride was reflected in the elegantly embroidered silk slippers and wrappings girls and women wore to cover their feet. Handmade shoes served to exhibit the embroidery skill of the wearer as well.[29] These shoes also served as support, as some women with bound feet might not have been able to walk without the support of their shoes and would have been severely limited in their mobility.[30] Contrary to missionary writings,[31] many women with bound feet were able to walk and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitations than their non-bound counterparts.

In the 19th and early 20th century there were dancers with bound feet as well as circus performers who stood on prancing or running horses. Women with bound feet in one village in Yunnan Province formed a regional dance troupe to perform for tourists in the late 20th century, though age has since forced the group to retire.[32] In other areas, women in their 70s and 80s assisted in the rice fields (albeit in a limited capacity) even into the early 21st century.[3]


Opposition to footbinding had been raised by some Chinese writers in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, many of the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion were men of Hakka background whose women did not bind their feet, and they outlawed footbinding in areas under their control.[33][34] However the rebellion failed and Christian missionaries, who had provided education for girls and actively discouraged what they considered a barbaric practice that had deleterious social effect on women,[35] then played a part in changing elite opinion on footbinding through education, pamphleteering and lobbying of the Qing court,[36][37] placing emphasis on the fact that no other culture in the world practised the custom of footbinding.[38]

The earliest-known Western anti-footbinding society was formed in Amoy (Xiamen) in 1874. 60–70 Christian women in Xiamen attended a meeting presided over by a missionary, John MacGowan, and formed the Natural Foot Society (Tianzu Hui (天足会), literally Heavenly Foot Society).[39][40] MacGowan held the view that footbinding was a serious problem that called into doubt the whole of Chinese civilization; he felt that "the nefarious civilization interferes with Divine Nature."[41] Members of the Heavenly Foot Society vowed not to bind their daughters' feet.[38][42] In 1895, Christian women in Shanghai led by Alicia Little, also formed a Natural Foot Society.[40][43] It was also championed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement founded in 1883 and advocated by missionaries including Timothy Richard, who thought that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.[44] This missionary-led opposition had stronger impacts than earlier Han or Manchu opposition.[45] Western missionaries established the first schools for girls, and encouraged women to end the practice of footbinding.[46] Christian missionaries did not conceal their shock and disgust either when explaining the process of footbinding to Western peers and their descriptions shocked their audience back home.[45]

Reform-minded Chinese intellectuals began to consider footbinding to be an aspect of their culture that needed to be eliminated.[47] In 1883, Kang Youwei founded the Anti-Footbinding Society near Canton to combat the practice, and anti-footbinding societies appeared across the country, with membership for the movement claimed to reach 300,000.[48][49] The anti-footbinding movement stressed pragmatic and patriotic reasons rather than feminist ones, arguing that abolition of footbinding would lead to better health and more efficient labour. Kang Youwei submitted a petition to the throne commenting on the fact that China had become a joke to foreigners and that "footbinding was the primary object of such ridicule."[50]

Reformers such as Liang Qichao, influenced by Social Darwinism, also argued that it weakened the nation, since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons.[51] In his "On Women's Education", Liang Qichao asserts that the root cause of national weakness inevitably lies the lack of education for women. Qichao connected education for women and footbinding: "As long as foot binding remains in practice, women's education can never flourish."[52] Qichao was also disappointed that foreigners had opened the first schools as he thought that the Chinese should be teaching Chinese women.[50] At the turn of the 20th century, early feminists, such as Qiu Jin, called for the end of footbinding.[53][54] In 1906, Zhao Zhiqian wrote in Beijing Women's News to blame women with bound feet for being a national weakness in the eyes of other nations.[55] Many members of anti-footbinding groups pledged to not bind their daughters' feet nor to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.[40][56] In 1902, Empress Dowager Cixi issued an anti-footbinding edict, but it was soon rescinded.[citation needed]

In 1912 the new Republic of China government banned footbinding, though the ban was not actively implemented,[57] and leading intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement saw footbinding as a major symbol of China's backwardness.[58] Provincial leaders, such as Yan Xishan in Shanxi, engaged in their own sustained campaign against footbinding with foot inspectors and fines for those who continued the practice,[57] while regional governments of the later Nanjing regime also enforced the ban.[36] The campaign against footbinding was successful in some regions. In one province, a 1929 survey showed that, while only 2.3% of girls born before 1910 had unbound feet, 95% of those born after were not bound.[59] In a region south of Beijing, Dingxian, where over 99% of women once had bound feet, no new cases were found among those born after 1919.[60][61] In Taiwan, the practice was also discouraged by the ruling Japanese from the beginning of Japanese rule, and from 1911 to 1915 it was gradually made illegal.[62] The practice lingered on in some regions in China. In 1928, a census in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet,[32] while in some remote rural areas, such as Yunnan Province, it continued to be practised until the 1950s.[63][64] In most parts of China the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949.[59] The practice was also stigmatized in Communist China, and the last vestiges of footbinding were stamped out, with the last new case of footbinding reported in 1957.[65][66] By the 21st century, only a few elderly women in China still had bound feet.[67][68] In 1999, the last shoe factory making lotus shoes, the Zhiqian Shoe Factory in Harbin, closed.[69]


Variations and prevalence

A comparison between a woman with un-bound feet (left) and a woman with bound feet in 1902

Footbinding was practised in various forms and its prevalence varied in different regions.[70] A less severe form in Sichuan, called "cucumber foot" (huángguā jiǎo 黃瓜腳) due to its slender shape, folded the four toes under but did not distort the heel or taper the ankle.[32][71] Some working women in Jiangsu made a pretence of binding while keeping their feet natural.[36] Not all women were always bound—some women once bound remained bound throughout their lives, some were only briefly bound and some were bound only until marriage.[72] Footbinding was most common among women whose work involved domestic crafts and those in urban areas;[36] it was also more common in northern China, where it was widely practised by women of all social classes, but less so in parts of southern China such as Guangdong and Guangxi, where it was largely a practice of women in the provincial capitals or among the gentry.[73][74] Feet were bound to their smallest in the northern provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi and Shaanxi, but the binding was less extreme and less common in the southern provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou, where not all daughters of the wealthy had bound feet.[75] Footbinding limited the mobility of girls, so they became engaged in handwork from childhood.[29] It is thought that the necessity for female labour in the fields owing to a longer growing season in the South and the impracticability of bound feet working in wet rice fields limited the spread of the practice in the countryside of the South.[76] However some farming women bound their daughter's feet, but "the process began later than in elite families, and feet were bound more loosely among the poor."[77]

The Manchu "flower bowl" shoes designed to imitate bound feet, mid-1880s

Manchu women, as well as Mongol and Chinese women in the Eight Banners, did not bind their feet. The most a Manchu woman might do was to wrap the feet tightly to give them a slender appearance.[78] The Manchus, wanting to emulate the particular gait that bound feet necessitated, adapted their own form of platform shoes to cause them to walk in a similar swaying manner. These Manchu platform shoes were known as "flower bowl" shoes (Chinese: 花盆鞋; pinyin: Huāpénxié) or "horse-hoof" shoes (Chinese: 馬蹄鞋; pinyin: Mǎtíxié); they have a platform generally made of wood 5–20 cm (2–6 in) in height and fitted to the middle of the sole, or they have a small central tapered pedestal. Many Han Chinese in the Inner City of Beijing did not bind their feet either, and it was reported in the mid-1800s that around 50–60% of non-banner women had unbound feet. Han immigrant women to the Northeast came under Manchu influence and abandoned footbinding.[79] Bound feet nevertheless became a significant differentiating marker between Han women and Manchu or other banner women.[78]

The Hakka people were unusual among Han Chinese in not practising footbinding.[80][81] Most non-Han Chinese people, such as the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans, did not bind their feet. Some non-Han ethnic groups did. Footbinding was practised by the Hui Muslims in Gansu Province.[82] The Dungan Muslims, descendants of Hui from northwestern China who fled to central Asia, were also practising footbinding up to 1948.[83] In southern China, in Canton (Guangzhou), 19th-century Scottish scholar James Legge noted a mosque that had a placard denouncing footbinding, saying Islam did not allow it since it constituted violating the creation of God.[84]


A bound foot
A bound foot
A bandaged bound foot
A bandaged bound foot

The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of four and nine. Binding usually started during the winter months since the feet were more likely to be numb and the pain would not be as extreme.[85]

First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood. This was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Cotton bandages, 3 m (10 ft) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide, were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.[38]

The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, while the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch of the foot forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot and around the heel, the broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, pressing the toes beneath the sole. The binding was pulled so tightly that the girl could not move her toes at all and the ends of the binding cloth were then sewn so that the girl could not loosen it.

An X-ray of two bound feet
Schema of an X-ray comparison between an unbound and bound foot

The girl's broken feet required a great deal of care and attention and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound they were washed, the toes checked for injury, and the nails trimmed. When unbound, the broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl's feet were often beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. The feet were also soaked in a concoction that caused necrotic flesh to fall off.[47]

Immediately after this procedure, the girl's broken toes were folded back under and the feet were rebound. The bindings were pulled even tighter each time the girl's feet were rebound. This unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible (for the rich at least once daily, for poor peasants two or three times a week), with fresh bindings. It was generally an elder female member of the girl's family or a professional footbinder who carried out the initial breaking and ongoing binding of the feet. It was considered preferable to have someone other than the mother do it, as she might have been sympathetic to her daughter's pain and less willing to keep the bindings tight.[85]

Once a girl's foot had been crushed and bound, attempting to reverse the process by unbinding was painful,[86] and the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain again. The timing and degree of footbinding varied among communities.[87]

Health problems

feet of a Chinese woman in an isolation hospital in Mauritius
Feet of a Chinese woman, showing the effect of foot-binding

The most common problem with bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes, for this reason, the girl's toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that the circulation in the feet was faulty, and the circulation to the toes was almost cut off, so injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal and were likely to gradually worsen and lead to infected toes and rotting flesh. The necrosis of the flesh would initially give off a foul odour. Later the smell may have come from various microorganisms that colonized the folds.[88] Most of the women receiving treatment did not go out often and were disabled.[38]

If the infection in the feet and toes entered the bones, it could cause them to soften, which could result in toes dropping off. This was seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were more fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury and introduce infection deliberately. Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from footbinding, and a surviving girl was more at risk of medical problems as she grew older. It is thought that as many as 10% of girls may have died from gangrene and other infections owing to footbinding.[89]

At the beginning of the binding, many of the foot bones would remain broken, often for years. However as the girl grew older the bones would begin to heal. Even after the foot bones had healed, they were prone to rebreaking repeatedly, especially when the girl was in her teenage years and her feet were still soft. Bones in the girls' feet would often be deliberately broken again to further change the size or shape of the feet. This was especially the case with the girl's toes, which were broken several times since small toes were especially desirable.[90] Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls, since they could not balance properly on their feet, and were less able to rise to their feet from a sitting position.[91] Other issues that may have arisen from footbinding included paralysis and muscular atrophy.[86] By the turn of the century footbinding had been exposed in photographs, X-rays and detailed textual descriptions. These scientific investigations detailed how footbinding deformed the leg, covered the skin with cracks and sores and altered the posture.[92]

Views and interpretations

There are many interpretations to the practice of footbinding. The interpretive models used include fashion (with the Chinese customs somewhat comparable to the more extreme examples of Western women's fashion such as corsetry), seclusion (sometimes evaluated as morally superior to the gender mingling in the West), perversion (the practice imposed by men with sexual perversions), inexplicable deformation, child abuse and extreme cultural traditionalism. In the late 20th century some feminists introduced positive overtones, reporting that it gave some women a sense of mastery over their bodies and pride in their beauty.[93]

Beauty and erotic appeal

Bound feet were considered beautiful and even erotic.

Before footbinding was practised in China, admiration for small feet already existed as demonstrated by the Tang dynasty tale of Ye Xian written around 850 by Duan Chengshi. This tale of a girl who lost her shoe and then married a king who sought the owner of the shoe as only her foot was small enough to fit the shoe contains elements of the European story of Cinderella and is thought to be one of its antecedents.[94][95] For many, the bound feet were an enhancement to a woman's beauty and made her movement more dainty,[96] and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage.[97][98] Even while not much was written on the subject of footbinding prior to the latter half of the 19th century, the writings that were done on this topic, particularly by educated men, frequently alluded to the erotic nature and appeal of bound feet in their poetry.[99] The desirability varies with the size of the feet—the perfect bound feet and the most desirable (called 'golden lotuses') would be around 3 Chinese inches (around 10 cm or 4 in) or smaller, while those larger were called 'silver lotuses' (4 Chinese inches—around 13 cm or 5.1 in) or 'iron lotuses' (5 Chinese inches—around 17 cm or 6.7 in—or larger, and thus the least desirable for marriage).[100] Therefore people had greater expectations for footbinding brides.[101] The belief that footbinding made women more desirable to men is widely used as an explanation for the spread and persistence of footbinding.[102]

Some also considered bound feet to be intensely erotic. Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny 'lotus shoes' and wrappings. According to Robert van Gulik, the bound feet were also considered the most intimate part of a woman's body. In erotic art of the Qing period where the genitalia may be shown, the bound feet were never depicted uncovered.[103] Howard Levy, however, suggests that the barely revealed bound foot may also only function as an initial tease.[102]

An effect of the bound feet was the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. Women with such deformed feet avoided placing weight on the front of the foot and tended to walk predominantly on their heels.[85] Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered to be erotically attractive to some men.[104] Some men found the smell of the bound feet attractive and some also apparently believed that bound feet would cause layers of folds to develop in the vagina, and that the thighs would become sensuously heavier and the vagina tighter.[105] The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud considered footbinding to be a "perversion that corresponds to foot fetishism",[106] and that it appeased male castration anxiety.[38][107]

Role of Confucianism

A woman with her feet unwrapped

In the Song dynasty the status of women declined[38] and a common argument is that the decline was the result of the revival of Confucianism as neo-Confucianism and that, in addition to promoting the seclusion of women and the cult of widow chastity, it also contributed to the development of footbinding.[108] According to Robert van Gulik, the prominent Song Confucian scholar Zhu Xi stressed the inferiority of women as well as the need to keep men and women strictly separate.[109] It was claimed by Lin Yutang among others, probably based on an oral tradition, that Zhu Xi also promoted footbinding in Fujian as a way of encouraging chastity among women; that by restricting their movement, it would help keep men and women separate.[108] However, historian Patricia Ebrey suggests that this story might be fictitious,[110] and argued that the practice arose so as to emphasize the gender distinction during a period of societal change in the Song dynasty.[38][111]

Some Confucian moralists in fact disapproved of the erotic associations of footbinding, and unbound women were also praised.[112] The Neo-Confucian Cheng Yi was said to be against footbinding and his family and descendants did not bind their feet.[113][114] Modern Confucian scholars such as Tu Weiming also dispute any causal link between neo-Confucianism and footbinding.[115] It has been noted that Confucian doctrine in fact prohibits mutilation of the body as people should not "injure even the hair and skin of the body received from mother and father". It is argued that such injunction applies less to women, rather it is meant to emphasize the sacred link between sons and their parents. Furthermore, it is argued that Confucianism institutionalized the family system in which women are called upon to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family, a system that fostered such practice.[116]

Historian Dorothy Ko proposed that footbinding may be an expression of the Confucian ideals of civility and culture in the form of correct attire or bodily adornment, and that footbinding was seen as a necessary part of being feminine as well as being civilized. Footbinding was often classified in Chinese encyclopedia as clothing or a form of bodily embellishment rather than mutilation. One from 1591, for example, placed footbinding in a section on "Female Adornments" that included hairdos, powders, and ear piercings. According to Ko, the perception of footbinding as a civilized practice may be evinced from a Ming dynasty account that mentioned a proposal to "entice [the barbarians] to civilize their customs" by encouraging footbinding among their womenfolk.[117] The practice was carried out only by women on girls, and it served to emphasize the distinction between male and female, an emphasis that began from an early age.[118][119] Anthropologist Fred Blake argued that the practice of footbinding was a form of discipline undertaken by women themselves, and perpetuated by women on their daughters, so as to inform their daughters of their role and position in society, and to support and participate in the neo-Confucian way of being civilized.[116]

Feminist perspective

Footbinding is often seen by feminists as an oppressive practice against women who were victims of a sexist culture.[120][121] It is also widely seen as a form of violence against women.[122][123][124] Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly the men, as they became largely restricted to their homes.[125] Thus, the practice ensured that women were much more reliant on their husbands.[126] The early Chinese feminist Qiu Jin, who underwent the painful process of unbinding her own bound feet, attacked footbinding and other traditional practices. She argued that women, by retaining their small bound feet, made themselves subservient as it would mean women imprisoning themselves indoors. She believed that women should emancipate themselves from oppression, that girls can ensure their independence through education, and that they should develop new mental and physical qualities fitting for the new era.[127][54] The ending of the practice is seen as a significant event in the process of female emancipation in China,[128] and a major event in the history of Chinese feminism.

In the late 20th century, some feminists have pushed back against the prevailing Western critiques of footbinding, arguing that the presumption that footbinding was done solely for the sexual pleasure of men denies the agency and cultural influence of women.[129][130]

Other interpretations

Some scholars such as Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates reject the notion that bound feet in China were considered more beautiful, or that it was a means of male control over women, a sign of class status, or a chance for women to marry well (in general, bound women did not improve their class position by marriage). Footbinding is believed to have spread from elite women to civilian women and there were large differences in each region. The body and labor of unmarried daughters belonged to their parents, thereby the boundaries between work and kinship for women were blurred.[70] They argued that foot binding was an instrumental means to reserve women to handwork, and can be seen as a way by mothers to tie their daughters down, train them in handwork, and keep them close at hand.[131][132] This argument has been challenged by Shepherd 2018, who shows there was no connection between handicraft industries and the proportion of women bound in Hebei.[133]

Footbinding was common when women could do light industry, but where women were required to do heavy farm work they often did not bind their feet because it hindered physical work. These scholars argued that the coming of the mechanized industry at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, such as the introduction of industrial textile processes, resulted in a loss of light handwork for women, removing a reason to maintain the practice. Mechanization resulted in women who worked at home facing a crisis.[29] Coupled with changes in politics and people's consciousness, the practice of foot binding disappeared in China forever after two generations.[70][131] More specifically, the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing (after the First Opium War) opened five cities as treaty ports where foreigners could live and trade. This led to foreign citizens residing in the area, where many proselytized as Christian missionaries. These foreigners condemned many long-standing Chinese cultural practices like footbinding as "uncivilized" — marking the beginning of the end for the centuries-long practice.[92]

It has been argued that while the practice started out as a fashion, it persisted because it became an expression of Han identity after the Mongols invaded China in 1279, and later the Manchus' conquest in 1644, as it was then practised only by Han women.[118] During the Qing dynasty, attempts were made by the Manchus to ban the practice but failed, and it has been argued the attempts at banning may have in fact led to a spread of the practice among Han Chinese in the 17th and 18th centuries.[134] Shepherd 2018 provides a critical review of the evidence cited for the notion that footbinding was an expression of "Han identity" and rejects this interpretation.[135]

In literature, film, and television

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The bound foot has played a prominent part in many media works, both Chinese and non-Chinese, modern and traditional.[136] These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumors or supposition. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931), the accounts are relatively neutral or empirical, implying respect for Chinese culture.[a] Sometimes, the accounts seem intended to rouse like-minded Chinese and foreign opinion to abolish the custom, and sometimes the accounts imply condescension or contempt for China.[137]

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ Though The Good Earth features neutral or empirical accounts of foot binding, Buck's previous novel, East Wind: West Wind explored the unbinding of a woman's feet, experienced as frightening and painful yet finally empowering, as part of her transition into a new, more modern and more individualistic persona under her doctor husband's tutelage.


  1. ^ Shepherd, John R. (2018). Footbinding as Fashion. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 9780295744407.
  2. ^ a b c "Chinese Foot Binding". BBC. Archived from the original on 2013-11-18.
  3. ^ a b c d Lim, Louisa (19 March 2007). "Painful Memories for China's Footbinding Survivors". Morning Edition. National Public Radio.
  4. ^ Hershatter, Gail (2019). Women and China's Revolutions. Rowman and Littlefield. p. 68.
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References and further reading