Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Chinese Footbinding

86 year old woman`s bound feet
Photo Credit: John Bullas
Many months ago, we read the Chinese version of Cinderella, Yeh Shen, in which the king searches for Yeh Shen after becoming enamored with her tiny shoe. This became a gateway to discussing the Chinese practice of foot binding.

Although I do not get into the graphic details of this practice, this post may be upsetting to read.

Foot binding was a painful, crippling, and sometimes fatal practice in China done to a young girls' feet. Girls, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, would have their feet wrapped in tight bandages in order to stop their growth and development. Eventually the foot would break, if not done forcibly. Bound feet remained small for the rest of their lives, and were prone to infection, paralysis and muscle atrophy.

Photo Credit: John Bullas
Bound feet were known as "lotus feet", and ranged from 3 to 6 inches long. The ideal "Golden lotus" was 3 inches. These tiny feet were a symbol of beauty, prestige and status. To walk on bound feet was to take very small steps, bending the knees and swaying, to avoid putting weight on the front of the foot. This walk was considered desirable, dainty and feminine.

We took a measuring tape to see quite how small 3-4 inches is. We then put this length in our hands and next to our own feet to compare.

Comparing bound feet with an American woman's shoe and a teacup
Source: Otis Historical Archives

Foot binding is believed to have begun with an emperor's concubines in the 10th century, and was initially reserved for the wealthiest in Chinese society. It was a symbol of prestige, status and wealth for the entire family: when daughters and wives had bound feet, it meant they weren't needed to do physical labor of any sort. This was an important source of pride. 

Lotus Shoe
Photo Credit: Kellie CA
As well as being a status symbol, bound feet was also a symbol of male ownership. Having bound feet limited a woman's mobility greatly, and generally had her restricted to the home. She became dependent on her family, whether that was her father or husband, usually needing an escort for help when leaving the house. This in turn limited the opportunities for women to take part in politics or socialize outside their home.

Wealthy Chinese women with bound feet
By the mid to late 1800s, it had become common practice in all social classes except for the poorest of peasants. Bound feet had become not only desirable, but vital in finding a husband. It was also considered a means to marry into money. In fact, by the early 1900's, poor families would often bind their oldest daughter's feet in hopes of getting a good marriage dowry rather than the lower value and price of a servant (it was very common to sell one's daughters into servitude).

Peasant girls with bound feet, in hopes of attracting marriage that would elevate their status.Source 
Peasant women with bound feet, working a stone grinding mill.
Despite the pain of bound feet, they have had to continue living a life of physical labor.
The practice of foot binding in China lasted nearly a thousand years, beginning in the 10th century, and ending in the 20th century.Though outlawed in 1912, and despite heavy fines for anyone who didn't unbind their feet, this wasn't widely enforced until the communist takeover in 1949 by threat of death. To this day, there are still elderly women in China who have bound feet.

My Several Worlds has a post about foot binding, that includes a short description of the process and photographs of an 86 year old Chinese woman with bound feet. Some of these photographs show her feet unbound, and therefore can be disturbing. I include the link here because though graphic, the images are of the least disturbing I have come across, if you were interested in learning more.

Rather than reduce this as a barbaric practice of the past, this subject has led to many discussions with the girls - about cultural norms, women's issues, male dominance (past and present), status and social classes, and even current fashion and ideals of beauty in our today's society - important discussions to have with our daughters. 


  1. Feet binding is a unbelievably perverse and cruel part of the ancient Chinese practice. It is staggering that millions of Chinese women were put through this cruel form of social acceptance in the past.

    1. It most definitely is Hwee, when I think of what those girls and women had to endure, I just shudder, and am thoroughly flabbergasted that such brutality can ever be considered acceptable.

  2. It's funny I was reading about this in the paper today. They were comparing it to female Gen##al mutilation (which people are trying to get outlawed), saying it was an abusive practice. It's weird what we as humans do to look 'beautiful' and fit in.

    1. You know, in my mind I've been comparing it to that as well - there are similar aspects I didn't want to bring up on a family friendly blog... but in the end, abuse suffered by women to fit a societal pressures that benefit - or are believed to benefit- men, that many women perpetuate.... I have to be careful not to get going :) Even less drastically though, you're right, we do some strange things to look "beautiful"!


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