Thought to have begun late in the Tang Dynasty (618-960), the practice of foot binding accelerated during the Song Dynasty (960-1297) and lasted over a thousand years. It started with the wealthy, but quickly spread to lower social classes as well. The ideal bound foot was 3 inches long, the shape of a crescent moon, and covered by a tiny embroidered shoe. Considered the most erotic part of the female anatomy, wives and concubines were selected based on the size and shape of their feet. It took years of intense pain in order to attain this ideal.
Because wives, daughters, and concubines could not stray far, foot binding was an effective method for controlling women, who were largely restricted to their homes and dependent on their families. But the situation for Chinese women had not always been so bleak. Until the Song Dynasty, women in the upper classes were educated and had the right to own property and amass wealth. They also had the freedom to marry or remarry as they chose, but the situation deteriorated. Women lost status, freedom, and property rights, and they effectively became property that was bought, sold, and even killed by their husbands and fathers.
Eventually, foot binding became a prerequisite for marriage. A prearranged bride could be rejected if her feet were not bound, and in the upper classes, a woman would almost never get married without having bound feet. By the 19th century, almost half of all Chinese women had bound feet, and in the upper classes, the practice was nearly ubiquitous.
To achieve the narrow pointed shape of a crescent moon, which was referred to as the Golden Lotus, the bones of the feet were crushed, beginning when a girl was 4 to 7 years old. The process typically began in the winter because feet were often numb from the cold. To soften the feet, they were soaked in a mixture of animal blood and herbs. The toenails were trimmed as much as possible or simply removed completely. A bandage approximately 10 feet long and 2 inches wide was wrapped around the foot so that the 4 small toes were tucked under the sole. Every day, the bandage was tightened until the bones in the toes fractured and could rest flat against the sole of the foot. The arch would break during the tightening process, and a rope was used to create extreme tension that would bring the heel forward, which forced the broken arch upward.
The practice would often lead to an infection, which left untreated, eventually caused the toes to fall off. This was considered beneficial, as the foot could then be bound even more tightly. In girls with large feet, glass shards or tile fragments were inserted into the binding beside the toes to deliberately cause an infection. The infection often led to septic shock and even death.
After time, regular rebinding would become a routine part of a girl’s life. The process was carried out by an elder female family member or a professional foot binder. Because of the infection that often resulted early in the process, the feet would become filled with pus, and would often split open. They were regularly bathed in perfumed water to cover the strong odor, and were soaked in urine to relieve swelling. Once the arch had been broken and the heel forced forward, the feet needed to remain bound and immediately rebound after washing to avoid losing their shape, which caused excruciating pain.
Typically, a man never saw a woman’s bound feet, as they were always hidden within delicate, doll-like embroidered shoes that were perfumed and occasionally studded with jingling bells. But perfectly shaped and ornamented lotus feet were not intended solely to be gazed upon. Sex manuals from the Qing Dynasty listed dozens of different ways to play with a woman’s bound feet. Fen Xun is recorded as saying “If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic will be destroyed forever.”
Women with bound feet were forced into adopting a swaying walk that was considered sexually attractive. Many felt that the walk even strengthened the vagina. This obsession with small feet would greatly influence poetry and art, and men fondling bound feet were portrayed in a large number of pornographic paintings and engravings.
Women were more fortunate in Manchuria, where the emperor forbade the binding of feet. However, as the practice became more popular, and the unusual walking gait became more fashionable, the Manchus invented the “flower bowl” shoe, which was a wooden bowl-like platform that forced a woman to display a gait that was similar to that of women with bound feet.
The National Government of China proclaimed in 1928 that not only was foot binding harmful to the health and emotional wellbeing of women, but also harmed the nation as a whole. The declaration was only partially successful, as people in many areas still considered large feet on women to be ugly and undesirable. It was not until the Communist revolution of 1949 that the practice of foot binding was finally brought to an end.
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