Facts About The History Of Chinese Foot Binding

Most of us have our morning ritual down pretty well. It's usually a variation of shower, dress, coffee, breakfast, scream at traffic, more coffee, arrive at work, and subsequently ponder our place in the universe until it's time to go home.

But rewind to a bit earlier: in those few precious moments before it's time to get out the door and race to punch in the clock, we probably don't think about the shoes we're slipping on. Okay, maybe some of us give it a little more thought than others, but they're typically the last items we put on, and the first ones we take off. 

They're fairly easy to operate, with the only real struggle coming from maybe a stubborn heel or a frayed lace every now and then. 

The point is, we should all be thankful the process of foot binding is finally over.

But what is foot binding, exactly? Well, imagine bending (and occasionally, breaking) your feet to grotesque angles from the age of five - and that's just scratching the surface. 

So why would anyone want to mangle their own toes to look like a vacuum-sealed pack of cocktail sausage smokies? Click through to find out some insane facts about this primitive practice.   

Photo: Planet Mag / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

  • How Foot Binding Worked

    The process of foot binding was lengthy and excruciating. Generally practiced in China between the 10th and 19th centuries, the practice spanned five dynasties. A foot binding ceremony was usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 6. At that age, bones are still composed of pre-bone cartilage and were easier to break and mold.

    The process began with submerging the feet in either hot water or a concoction of herbs and nuts. All toes except the largest were then broken and tightly wrapped in 10'12" cotton bandages, nestling them under the sole of the foot and angling the ball downward to create the desired hoof-like shape. Every two days, the feet were unbound, meticulously cleaned and manicured, and re-wrapped. 

  • Why Foot Binding Was Practiced

    Why Foot Binding Was Practiced
    Photo: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Small feet were idealized in ancient China as a pinnacle of female beauty and an indication of nobility. The manner of walking that foot binding necessitated was comprised of miniscule, mincing steps to avoid toppling over––a practice that ultimately tightened the pelvic muscles and inner thighs.

    This muscular training was believed to prepare women for ideal lovemaking, thus, foot binding was upheld as a beautifying practice due to its perceived lurid implications.

    Other sources suggest that foot binding was not limited to the elite, but was also practiced by the working class in order to keep "willful, playful" young girls disciplined. Women's labor consisted mostly of handwork such as weaving, which required long periods of sitting rather than mobility.

    93-year-old Sun Choi Ngo Chu, a survivor of foot binding, stated that, rather than a male presence enforcing the custom, her mother was the one who encouraged her to bind: "It was my mom that kept telling me that I have to have my feet bound. So, I had my feet bound. But now I kind of regret it because the bound feet actually cause a lot of pain."

  • Its Origins Are Largely Unknown

    Historians have dated foot binding's inception to around the 10th century. Some accounts claim that Yao Niang, a dancer for Emperor Li Yu (reigned 961-976), bound her feet in a similar fashion in order to mimic the shape of a new moon, thus inspiring the cultural practice. Others believe that, because the Lotus Flower was held in such high regard during the time, female beauty could be elevated if a woman's foot shared a similar shape. 

  • The Boots Illustrated The Shape Of The Feet

    Constructed from silk or cotton, shoes worn by foot-bound women were designed to imitate the shape of a lotus bud. Typically wedge or sheath-shaped, the ideal lotus shoe was 3 inches long, though many historical examples in Western collections are between 5 and 5.5 inches in length.

    Women whose feet could not conform to the 3-inch ideal employed a variety of methods to achieve as small of a foot as possible: for example, the heel of the foot at times protruded over the back of the shoe; the heel was then further bound with wrappings or hidden by clothing hemlines.

  • Without Proper Maintenance, The Foot Would Rot

    In order to achieve the desired lotus shape, extreme measures were sometimes taken to discipline the shape of women's feet. The flesh of the foot was lacerated in some cases, while in others, sharp objects were inserted into the bandages, leaving various wounds––both of these tactics were used to encourage extra flesh to rot away, thus shrinking the foot further. 

    Though this type of mutilation was purposeful when performed, lack of proper maintenance––such as unclipped toenails or lack of washing––could also lead to infection and rotting flesh.

  • The Rest Of The Body Also Suffered Negative Effects

    While foot binding's immediate damage inflicted on the feet is obvious, the rest of the body also suffered from the restrictions. Notably, women with bound feet were found to have 5.1% lower hip bone density and 4.7% lower spine bone density. Both of these factors contributed to these women's increased risk for hip or spine fractures.