How Foot Binding Worked

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.