How Foot Binding Worked

old women with  bound feet
Two elderly women in Tonghai, China wear tiny "lotus shoes" on their bound feet. Foot binding was a common practice in China for more than 1,000 years before it was outlawed in 1912. See more pictures of China.
© Michael S. Yamashita/CORBIS

The mincing steps. The swaying hips. The little nubbins at the ends of women's legs, carefully tucked into miniature, ornate shoes. For 1,000 years, tiny, curved feet were considered the ultimate standard of feminine beauty in China, leading about 3 billion Chinese womento bind their feet during this time, despite the fact that foot binding was a long, extremely painful process that resulted in severely deformed feet for life [source: Ross].

Several stories exist as to how the practice got started, but the most popular and credible says it began with Emperor Li Yu, who reigned during the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975 A.D.). In 970, the emperor reportedly saw his favorite consort dancing on a golden lotus pedestal and was entranced by her feet, which she had wrapped in strips of cloth -- much like those of a ballerina dancing on pointe -- so her dancing appeared more beautiful. Seeing the emperor's pleasure, other court maidens similarly wrapped their feet. Soon upper-class women adopted the fashion, and eventually it spread to all women, no matter their social status. Only a few regions resisted, like the Manchu and those who hailed from Guangdong in southern China [sources: Holman, Ross].


Unfortunately, as the custom took hold it morphed. Women wanted ever-smaller, more curved feet, and so the foot binding process was created to achieve highly arched, 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) feet. The practice thrived for 1,000 years until it was outlawed in 1912 after the revolution of Sun Yat-sen. However, women continued to bind their feet in parts of China until the late 1950s [sources: Evans, Minnesota-China Connection].

After the Communists came to power in 1949, women were forced to do hard physical labor like digging reservoirs, and those with bound feet found the work excruciating. They often went without food as they could not fulfill their daily production quota nor forage in the mountains for fruits like other women [source: Lim]. Today, foot binding is not practiced anywhere.

A 3-inch foot seems an impossibility. If you have the stomach, read on to see how it was achieved.


Foot Binding: Physiologically Speaking

women with bound feet getting foot cleaned
A 105-year-old woman with bound feet, has her toenails cut by her daughter in central China's Hubei province June 28, 2006. Note the broken instep and the toes curved under the sole.
© STRINGER/CHINA/Reuters/Corbis

The foot binding process was long, excruciatingly painful and pretty gross. It generally began when girls were 4 to 7 years old, because at that age the bones in their feet were still fairly soft and pliable, and thus easier to reshape [source: Footwear History].

First, the feet were softened in hot water. After a few hours, any dead skin was scrubbed off, toenails were clipped as short as possible and alum was sprinkled between the toes to stop perspiration. Next came the actual binding. Cotton bandages, generally 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide by 10 feet (3 meters) long, were soaked in hot water so they'd shrink as they dried. Then the binder -- sometimes the girl's mother, other times an experienced woman in the village -- folded the girl's four small toes under her feet and began wrapping each foot with the bandages in a figure-eight pattern. The goal was to leave the big toe and ball of the foot largely intact, but keep the other four toes under the foot and bring the heel forward, towards the front of the foot. The bones in the arch and foot would break during the process. To ensure a tight bind and prevent the little girl from ripping off the bandages, the bandages were sewn together at several points. Once the binding was finished, a small pair of shoes was placed on the girl's feet and she was forced to walk around. The initial steps taken when feet were bound were incredibly painful [source: Footwear History].


Every day or two, the girl's feet were unbound, bathed and rebound. Slowly, the bindings became tighter and the shoes smaller, until her feet reached the coveted 3-inch crescent moon shape, a process that took about two years [source: Minnesota-China Connection].

During this lengthy process, many things could go wrong. If a girl's toenails hadn't been trimmed enough, they could cut into the bottom of her feet and cause an infection. Gangrene was also a worry; it could quickly set in if the bindings were too tight [source: Evans]. Even when everything had been properly done, it was common for bound feet to become swollen and pus-filled, then break open, causing even more pain, plus a terrible odor [source: Holman].

Perhaps the most unpleasant thing about foot binding was that it was never over. Even after a girl's feet were successfully bound, she had to meticulously tend to them for the rest of her life -- regularly bathing them to avoid infection, and always rebinding quickly after a washing. If her feet weren't rebound, they'd begin to lose their form, which some Chinese women said was as painful as the original binding [source: Holman].


Foot Binding: Cultural Effects

Once foot binding became entrenched in the culture, it was impossible to stop. Bound feet became the norm; unbound feet were seen as freakish, lewd and ugly. And while mothers undoubtedly hated to inflict pain on their daughters, leaving their feet unbound was never considered. For if a mother didn't bind her daughter's feet, her daughter would be ridiculed by other women and would almost assuredly never snag a husband. A young girl could be lifted out of poverty if her feet were small and perfectly curved, because that was more important to men than her social status [source: Holman].

Foot binding also fostered the dominance of men over women. Since it was difficult for a woman to walk with bound feet -- the farthest she could walk was 3 or 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 kilometers) -- Chinese women never strayed far from home, nor had much contact with others outside their villages. This made them more conservative and more willing to obey their husbands. Their diminished mobility virtually ensured they couldn't have extramarital affairs, or run away to escape a beating when their husbands were displeased. As foot binding became entrenched during the Song dynasty (960-1279), education for women was strictly curtailed and independent property rights outlawed [sources: Evans, Ross, Holman].


On a more positive note, foot binding also created strong intergenerational bonds among the women, since they did all the binding and also had their feet bound. Women were proud of their tiny feet. They regularly got together to sew their shoes, which were a major fashion statement [source: Gillet].

Beyond relationships, foot binding reshaped China's architecture. The Chinese began building only single-story homes because it was so difficult for women to climb stairs. Streets and lanes were very narrow because the women needed to lean upon walls or railings when they walked [source: Ross].

Amazingly, foot binding also affected the world's colonization. While Westerners were rapidly exploring the globe and colonizing vast swaths of land, the Chinese opted out. Their women couldn't travel easily or perform the difficult manual labor necessary when pioneering a new country, and the men didn't want to leave their women. The few Chinese who did settle new lands were almost all from the ethnic groups that didn't practice binding [source: Ross].

Perhaps the most intriguing and bizarre cultural effect of foot binding, however, was the development of foot fetishes and the sexualizing of the bound foot.


Foot Binding: Lotus Shoes and Foot Fetishes

young chinese woman with bound feet
A portrait of young Chinese woman in the 1880s whose tiny feet are the result of the tradition of foot binding.
© Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS

Once tiny feet and daintily decorated shoes became the focal point of a woman's body, they became highly sensual and erotic. A woman could be ugly or have a terrible figure, but men wouldn't care a bit if her feet were very small, perfectly curved and clad in beautiful shoes [source: Holman].

Ancient manuals instructed men in how to sensually fondle bound feet in innumerable ways, and use them to enhance sexual encounters. The Chinese also believed women with bound feet developed extra strong vaginal muscles because of the mincing steps they took, thus making sexual intercourse more pleasurable. Further, many women kept their feet bound throughout sexual encounters, enhancing their mystique while covering their grotesqueness. But some men liked to see the bare foot -- they would smell it, caress it, even put it in their mouth. Bizarre foot fetishes developed, such as drinking the water a woman had used to wash her feet, or placing nuts between her deformed toes, then eating them [sources: Holman, Evans].


The women's special lotus shoes got their name from the shape of the bound foot, which was said to resemble a lotus petal. Since they were considered intimate apparel and part of the sexual attraction, women carefully sewed their shoes with fine silk uppers, then added beautiful embroidery that reflected the women's personality and region of the country [source: Footwear History].

Lotus shoes were so important that a woman had to own at least four pairs if she wanted to get married, and ideally 16 -- four pairs per season. One pair -- the wedding shoes -- were always red and the most ornate. Since women weren't allowed to sleep solely in their bindings, a pair of sleeping slippers was also part of the trousseau. The slippers typically featured erotic embroidery on the inside, which the couple looked at together on their wedding night [source: Footwear History].

For many of us, it seems unbelievable that foot binding could have existed, especially for 1,000 years. Yet others note humans still do some pretty unusual things to their bodies, all in the name of beauty, such as plastic surgery, tattoos and piercings. And really, how much have we advanced if women are still cramming their feet into narrow, 5-inch high heel shoes and tottering around?


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Foot Binding Worked

I've seen lotus shoes in a few museums, including Ripley's Believe It Or Not! They're so much tinier than you can possibly imagine -- they're like baby booties. With size 9.5 feet, I really can't comprehend this. Nor do I especially want to.

Related Articles

  • Ancient Standard. "A Look at the History of Foot Binding." Dec. 22, 2010. (March 13, 2013)
  • Columbia University. "Dorothy Ko." (March 13, 2013)
  • Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture. "Feng Jicai." (March 13, 2013)
  • Evans, Myfanawy. "The Painful Tradition of Foot Binding in China." Pattaya Daily News. Sept. 16, 2010. (March 13, 2013)
  • Footwear History. "The Lotus Shoe." (March 13, 2013)
  • Gillet, Kit. "In China, foot binding slowly slips into history." Los Angeles Times. April 16, 2012. (March 13, 2013)
  • Holman, Jeanine. "Bound Feet." Joseph Rupp. (March 13, 2013)
  • Lim, Louisa. "Painful Memories for China's Footbinding Survivors." NPR. March 19, 2007. (March 13, 2013)
  • Minnesota-China Connection. "Chinese Footbinding: Broken Lotus." (March 13, 2013)
  • Podbielski, Sue. "Sue's Movie Review -- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." July 20, 2011. (March 13, 2013)
  • Ross, John. "The Shoe Man." From "Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present," (March 14, 2013).
  • The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. "Chinese Girl With Bound Feet." (March 13, 2013)
  • University of Virginia Health System. "Traditional Lotus Shoes." (March 13, 2013).
  • Wang Ping Books. "Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China." (March 13, 2013)