Although not used anymore, foot binding was a way to reshape or modify girls’ feet by tightly binding them so that the feet could be as small as possible while limiting the growth. This was practiced in China during the Tang Dynasty up until recently, in the 20th century.
- Origin and Spread
- The Process
Origin and Spread
While there are many stories about the origin of feet binding, one of them is about this dancer Yaoniang that performed in the court of the Tang Dynasty with other dancers. And these dancers were noticed for their uniquely shaped feet, very small with upturned toes. The binding has been long associated with women that were entertaining men as well as determining the line between the upper class with the lower class.
Once we hit the Song Dynasty, foot binding becomes a tradition used on girls from all socioeconomic classes. The Song Dynasty lasted from 960 to 1279 in Chinese history. Since the upper class would bind girls feet and it was seen as a sign of wealth, the lower class would partake in feet binding as a way to raise the prospects of their own children’s wealth and success.
It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty when efforts had been made to ban feet binding, but it wasn’t until the 20th century till that was achieved.
Feet Binding is viewed, by some, as “a way to oppress women in a sexist culture”.(Hong) It was also seen as a violent act against women. Many of the reasons people would say it is a violent act towards women, is because only women (young girls) had their feet bound, and the health and physical outcomes showed a lot of pain and struggle for later on in life.
To achieve the desired arch, the binding process would have to start before the feet are fully developed so the feet would be bound between the ages of four and nine. The first thing would be to soak the feet in a mixture of animal blood and herbs, in order to soften the feet as well as too help with the binding. This process was also done a lot in the winter time, so that the feet were number and therefore less likely to feel anything. Then the toenails would be trimmed as far back as possible to prevent infection from ingrown toenails, which is mentioned in the Health section below. The cotton bandages would be also dipped into the mixture, and then the toes on the outside of the feet are curled down and then wrapped with the bandages. The binding of the bandages are done in a figure-eight style, and the feet would need to be attended after the binding to make sure they are staying in the same shape.
Many studies have been done, in recent years, about foot binding and the physical effects it takes on feet and the rest of the body. One study focused on older Chinese woman, and looked into the side effects from having their feet bound. After looking at women older than 70 with bound feet, were assessed for deformities and other physical malfunctions like falling for example. “Women with bound feet were more likely to fall, less able to squat, and less able to stand up from a chair without assistance than women with normal feet.” (Cummings, Ling, Stone, 1997) Besides the future problems as women age, another health issue was the risk of infection due to ingrown toenails. Even though the feet can be well taken care of, the toenail can still grown in the foot as well as infection from the lose of the toe all together when the binding is too tight for too long.
Check out these for more information about Feet Binding:
Berger, Yang, & Ye. (2019). Foot binding in a Ming dynasty cemetery near Xi’an, China. International Journal of Paleopathology,24, 79-88.
Cummings, S., Ling, X., & Stone, K. (1997). Consequences of foot binding among older women in Beijing, China. American Journal of Public Health,87(10), 1677-1679.
Richardson, M. (2009). Chinese Foot Binding: Radiographic Findings and Case Report. Radiology Case Reports,4(1), 270.
Levy, Howard S. (1991). The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Tradition of Foot Binding in China. New York: Prometheus Books. p. 322.
Fan Hong. Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China. Routledge.
Amelia Baucum is currently a senior at Old Dominion University pursuing a B.S. in Human Services with a minor in Women’s Studies. Her hobbies include photography, painting and watching movies. She plans to move out west after graduation hoping to continue working with photography.