Foot-binding in China by Rajesh Ravindranath

Foot-binding was a painful and permanent ritual custom of restricting young girls feet as small as possible from a normal growth. This custom was extensively used as a status symbol among the elite to improve their social prospects. It was believed a woman’s attractiveness and elegance would enhance with bound feet. Largely, it was practiced by the rich and elite families, where the rich had servants to attend to their needs whereas the poor girls couldn’t afford to do foot binding as they were required to work every day. The process began usually from the age of five by ritual offerings and prayers to the Tiny-Footed Maiden Spirit once an auspicious day was chosen.

Description: chinese foot binding

Figure 1. “Process of Foot Binding”. Reprinted from China Highlights, n.d., Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/china-history/chinese-foot-binding.htm

It is believed that the tradition of foot binding originated in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279) among Turkic royal court dancers. The earliest documented records substantiate that the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975) in the court of the southern-central Chinese province had royal court dancers in their services. Continuing the tradition, foot binding became prevalent among many elite families apart from the royal families. Most of the girls were from the Han dynasty, but other elite families such as the Dungan, Hui, and some Cantonese families started practicing this art. Different types of foot binding were also practiced, such as a process called loose binding, where the toes and arch were not broken. They used a technique to narrow the foot, still, it was very common to have severe infections and gangrene among girls. The intended outcome of the long and painful procedure was to have a feet known as “Golden Lotus” or “Lotus” feet which was the eternal symbol of Buddhism.

Description: Chinese Foot Binding

Figure 2. “Chinese Foot Binding”. Reprinted from Kidzworld, n.d., Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://www.kidzworld.com/article/2142-history-chinese-foot-binding

Foot-binding turned into a traditional custom during the Song Dynasty and spread all over eastern China. The prevalent practice of foot binding by the upper class slowly found its way into the lower-middle-class society as a means to seek better prospects of their children. The widespread admiration and acceptance of foot binding was reached its peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries where young girls with bound feet performed not only in the royal court but also at circuses. The migration of a large number of Chinese families in the 19th century paved the way for foot binding practices in Europe, Hong Kong, and South East Asia, especially Indonesia.

Resistance & Criticism: Being an excruciating process with long-lasting complications of mobility, the tradition had its impacts. In the 16th century, the Manchu Qing Dynasty forbid its citizens from binding their feet. The Song dynasty was overthrown by the Mongols in the 12th century. The far more politically independent and influential Mongol women were not in favor of their daughters being disabled permanently with foot binding and they were officially barred from the practice. Though some Western and Muslim activists and reformers challenged the tradition of foot binding, it began to officially die out only during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was largely due to perceptions of ‘modernization’, changes in social status and settings along with strong anti-foot binding campaigns across China. The Communists party took over the country after the Civil War in 1949. Mao Zedong treated women who took part in the revolution as equal partners and banned foot-binding all over China as it severely weakened rural women’s significance as workers.

Medical Concerns of Foot-Binding: For over hundred years, a high number of Chinese girls had to undergo excruciating body pain to comply with the prevailing social expectation and tradition of foot binding. They were subjected to such rituals to increase their prospects. Young girls’ feet were repeatedly crushed to reach the desired shape and size. Every girl going through this process had to go through unimaginable pain. The outcome, no matter the inspiration, was the extreme physical injury. Despite the brutality of foot-binding, the persistent medical consequences have been largely ignored. Despite the pain after every procedure, the girls were literally forced to walk, to gain their blood circulation. All the toes were bent toward the bottom of the foot leaving only one toe, and bound tightly with cloth bandages which were not sterilized and the toes were regularly broken to be bound over even more tightly.

Description: What are some of the health complications of foot binding?

Figure 2. “Health complications of foot binding”. Reprinted from MyMed, n.d., Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://www.mymed.com/health-wellness/body-modifications/foot-binding/what-are-some-of-the-health-complications-of-foot-binding

Having tightly bound feet would severely hamper a woman’s balance while walking. It resulted in the lumbar vertebrae bending forward which restricts a woman’s balance and shifted the weight to the lower part of the pelvis which often leads to pelvic damage (Mackie 1003). As Chinese girls practiced this ritual from a very young age, foot binding affected their bone density, growth, and deformities. As the toes tend to curl inward along the sole, toenails tend to grow inside the flesh, leading to severe infection. Some women have been recorded, suffering from severe septic shock and death because of foot binding.

Women’s life and Social Status: women in ancient China have been persecuted for hundreds of years because of the very low status accorded to them in the male-dominated society.  The most methodical, traditional, and firmly embedded chauvinist philosophies and practices in China originated from the beliefs of “filial piety” of Confucius (551-479 B.C.) (Xing 17).  The practice of foot binding is undoubtedly one of the most inhuman and wide-spread rituals known in the history of mankind. Their feet in due course became completely deformed, making them confined to their home, as a result they had to depend on men. One of the most significant reasons to end this ritual, was the reformist crusade initiated by intellectuals in the 19th century. Their knowledge of Western societies and thoughts influenced the democratic social system about scientific direction, family, and marriage. Lack of education among women, inequality and, bound feet prevented them from nurturing a strong and healthy future for the country. They encouraged equality between women and men, educational prospects for women, and participation in labor. The main motivation was to change Chinese the social order and make it an economically independent nation. After the great agricultural revolution in 1958, China launched a huge campaign to increase the economic development of industry and technology (Peerenboom 117). The government urged the women to join the labor force, like working the fields and other male-oriented industrial professions. Newly initiated establishments such as cafeterias, nurseries and kindergartens were mostly supervised and staffed by women. Even though the Great Leap Forward Movement was not a successful venture, the participation of women’s labor force reached a saturation level that continued throughout the period of Cultural Revolution (Li 32). On a more encouraging note, foot binding also formed strong co-existing habits between different generations, since they frequently sew their shoes together. Beyond these affinity, foot binding redesigned China’s culture and architecture. Since it was challenging for women to climb, the Chinese began constructing single story structures. Paths and tracks were built narrow so as to assist the women folk to lean on walls when they walked. The Chinese women, who had until that time relished the role of secondary and supressed role in the society started demanding equal rights with their male counterparts. This agitation more or less led to the abolition of foot binding and paved the way for women’s emancipation in China which further led to restructuring and modernization. The results were not easy as it took nearly two centuries of reformist movements by scholars and intellectuals to wipe out this age-old ritual. On a socio-economic front, the women were ready to cast aside their oppression and work with men, side by side on an equal basis (Chan 231). Psychologically, the Chinese woman started noticing and taking interest in the high-heeled footwear coming from the West thereby putting a stop to the tradition of foot binding.

Completely banning an age old tradition can lead to occasional setbacks and conflicts in the development of women’s empowerment and liberation, it is to be noted that, to a certain extent, the Chinese government has to be given credit for the development process and clearing out the way for many other obstacles encountered by the Chinese women’s movement (Menke 8). The Chinese implement its socio-economic reforms based on the most significant concerns raised by its intellectuals and reformists. Women’s crusade and the social stratification of gender in modern-day China has undeniably, heralded numerous changes that have considerably minimised the gender disparity. The communist party directly involves in restructuring and implementing new policies to protect their women. Women’s labor force participation was, for some time brought to almost a saturated level. There has been significant increase in the level of general public’s awareness over the issue of gender inequality. Gender gap has become smaller in the areas of educational achievement, labor force participation and division of labour.

The ritual of foot binding lasted almost 1000 years in China and it signified the wealth of a girl’s family by not allowing their daughter to do any labour intensive work. Though foot binding was considered an inhuman treatment, it was still seen as a sign of prosperity and wealth. The ritual of foot binding was performed as a mark of respect to the Chinese culture. However, the uprising by Chinese nationalists ignited the spark that was to end foot binding significantly. The tradition started to take a hit considerably their-on. Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution completely outlawed the practice of foot binding from 1911. It can be considered a big relief and an end to the atrocities of female suppression and gender inequality. As a result of the rebellions and resistance movements by nationalists and reformers, the practice of foot binding ceased to exist in modern Chinese societies.

Work Cited

Chan, Lily Mary Veronica. “Foot binding in Chinese women and its psycho-social implications.” Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal 15.2 (1970): 229-232.

Li, Yuhui. “Women’s movement and change of women’s status in China.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 1.1 (2000): 30-40.

Mackie, Gerry. “Ending footbinding and infibulation: A convention account.” American sociological review (1996): 999-1017.

Menke, Augustine. “The Development of Feminism in China.” (2017).

Xing, Guang. “Early Buddhist and Confucian Concepts of Filial Piety: A Comparative Study.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 4 (2013).

Peerenboom, Randall. “Assessing human rights in China: why the double standard.” Cornell Int’l LJ 38 (2005): 71.

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