Horrors Behind China’s Foot binding “One must suffer to be beautiful.” This quote used by Robin Marantz Hening, the author of “The Price of Perfection” explains that beauty comes at a high price. As girls, we were always told that we are beautiful just the way we are, but then with the influence of popular magazines and TV show with well-dressed skinny models with perfect makeup say something else. It has become a norm that woman is the one who are supposed to look beautiful to gain comfort and status. In order to get that comfort and status, women deal with a great amount of suffering. But to what extent should we bear the pain to meet the standards of beauty? In a beauty trend that that lasted for nearly a thousand years known as foot binding, girls suffered extreme pain and suffering to meet the appropriate beauty standards to display status, marriageability with prospective mothers-in-law selecting their son’s future wife by the appearance of her feet and to conform to male ideals of beauty (Wilson 17).
Origin Chinese foot binding (Cha´nzu´ ) was a dangerous trend in China that was originally practiced during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in 10th century. There were a lot of stories on how this practice started. A story states, it was practiced to imitate an imperial concubine who was required to dance with her feet bound (Cummings et al. 1677). She was known to be the emperor’s favorite concubine and thus the other concubines, to gain the emperor’s attention started imitating her. Some believe it symbolizes a girl’s willingness to obey, as it limits the mobility of movement and power of females, kept women subordinate to men and increases the differences between sexes (Smith). According to Eliza Knight, some story says an empress with fourteen-inch-long feet had the habit of sleepwalking and it was decided that her long feet was the cause of it. She then summoned a surgeon and cut parts of her feet making them three-inch-long which stopped her sleepwalking.
But she was unpleased that the rest of the women in the palace had naturally long legs, so she ordered all women must have long legs. According to Tiffany Marie Smith, it was also said to be a symbol of prestige, as it was believed that foot binding increases fertility since the blood would flow up to the legs, hips and vaginal areas. Although the origin of foot binding is not clearly stated, the practice become severe and widely spread by the 12th century.
Procedure The practice of foot binding began between the ages of three and five and had as its goal the creation of a crescent shaped three-inch long tiny foot, referred to as golden lotus (Turner 444). This practice of forced deformity was passed generationally from mother to daughter. The process usually starts during the winter months since the cold would most likely keep the feet numb and reduce pain. Firstly, the feet would be soaked with warm water and animal blood to keep the feet soft. Then, to prevent ingrowth and infection, the toenails were cut short since they would be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. After that, the broken toes would be wrapped around with 3 m long and 5 cm wide cotton bandages soaked with mixture of blood and herb. The bandages were regularly released to clean the feet to prevent further growth and avoid infection till adulthood.
And lastly, the bound feet were squeezed into a shoe one-fifth of an inch smaller than the previous pair of shoes called “Golden Lotus”. Infection was the most common health issue. When the infection enters the bone, it would cause the toes to soften and even result in toes dropping off. Paralysis and muscular atrophy were also some of other issues that might arise in this trend. Therefore, the women who have practiced foot binding end up dying with infection or crippled for the rest of their life.
Lotus Shoes and Foot Fetishes A woman could be ugly or poor, but men wouldn’t care less if her feet were very small and perfectly curved and clad in beautiful shoes called “Golden Lotus”. Ancient manuals instructed men on how to sexually fondle bound feet in various ways and use them to enhance sexual encounter. The Chinese also believed women with bound feet would develop extra strong vaginal muscles due to the mincing steps they took, thus making sexual intercourse more pleasurable. Further, many women purposely kept their feet bound throughout sexual encounters, enhancing their mystique while covering their grotesqueness. But some men liked the women to leave their feet bare- they would smell them, caress them and even put it in their mouth.
Bizarre feet fetishes developed, such as drinking the water that the women had used to wash her feet. The special lotus shoes got their name from the shape of the bound feet which was said to resemble a lotus petal. Women carefully sewed their shoes with fine silk uppers, and then add beautiful embroidery that reflect their personality and region as the shoes were considered intimate apparel and part of sexual attraction. Lotus shoes were so important that if the women wanted to get married, she had to at least own four pairs and ideally 16; four pairs per season. The wedding Lotus shoes were always red and the most decorated.
A special pair of sleeping slippers was also part of the trousseau as they were not allowed to sleep solely in their bindings. The slippers had erotic embroidery on the inside which the couple looked at together on their wedding night. The most intriguing and bizarre effect of foot binding was the development of foot fetishes and the sexualizing of the bound feet. Benefits When foot binding was widely known, people with unbound feet seemed freakish, ugly and lewd. While the mother hated to inflict pain on their daughters, having their feet unbound was never considered. If a mother didn’t bind her daughter’s feet, her daughter would be ridiculed by other women and would mostly never get a husband (McManus 3). If the young girl’s feet are small and perfectly curved, she would be lifted out of poverty because that was important to men than her social status. Foot binding also created strong intergenerational bonds among the women, since they had their feet bound.
Women were proud of their small feet. In addition to that, Foot binding also reshaped China’s architecture. Since the women would have difficulty in climbing stairs, they began building only single-storied houses. Streets and lanes were very narrow because while walking the women need to lean upon walls or railings for support.
Health Risks Foot binding was a hellish ordeal, and the women suffered in agonizing pain for many years since the feet had to be broken continually and tightly re-bound until they stopped growing. Heath risks includes being crippled, loss of blood supply, necrotic skin, toes falling off, etc. Some women also suffer some infection due to lack of proper aiding. In addition to that, women with bound feet would have difficulty in doing thing what normal women could easily do. According to a research done by Cummings, 38% of women with bound feet aged older than 80 years and 28% of women with bound feet aged within 70 to 79 years old had fallen during the previous year compared to 19% in each age group of women with normal feet.
54% of the bound feet women older than 80 years and 11% of the bound feet women aged between 70 to 79 years old were less able to squat compared to 31% and 3% of women with normal feet aged older than 80 and between 70- 79 years old respectively. Memories of Foot Binding Survivors Wang Lifen, now aged 79, had her feet bound by her mother at the age of 7. She had her toes broken and bounded them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages.
Wang carried on, even after her mother’s death, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her toes and heel even closer. ” Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken. Young bones are soft, and break more easily.” Wang says (Lim). In her case, her in-laws had demanded the matchmaker find their son a wife with tiny feet as bound feet were a status symbols. But after her marriage, she found out her husband was an opium addict.
A life with bound feet and an opium addict husband, Wang Lifen’s a remnant from another age. Zhou Guizhen, another survivor of foot binding shares her memory on how she used to secretly bind her feet and trick the government inspector even after foot binding was outlawed in 1912. She used to bandage her feet and put on big shoes and fool the inspectors. Bound feet used to be a symbol of class but now it stands for female subjugation. Zhou says,” I regret binding my feet. I can’t dance, I can’t move properly. I regret it a lot.
But at the time, if you didn’t bind your feet, no one would marry you.” (Lim). Both of the women regretted that they practiced foot binding even when the beauty trend was banned. Elimination of Foot Binding Foot binding started to decline during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as the Manchu seized control.
He abhorred all Han tradition including foot binding and imposing death penalties to those who followed foot binding. In 1665, Emperor Zangxi tried to ban foot binding however after three years, the practice was revoke by the Ministry of Rites. During 1835, foot binding affected 50 %- 80% of women excluding the lowest class, in where the women had to work in agriculture or manufacturing. The National Foot Society started in Shanghai and the Anti-Foot Binding Society in 1895 and 1897 respectively with 300,000 members who guaranteed unbound marriage partner for their children.
However, leading public opinions opposed to foot binding during 1908 and led to the leadership of the Natural Foot Society transfer to a committee of Chinese women. Nevertheless, after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and the 1911 Chinese Revolution, foot binding was finally banned in 1912. Inspectors issue monetary fines to those continuing the practice during 1915, yet despite the effort, foot binding was still followed in isolated regions until 1930s. It was estimated that over 2 billion women had their feet bound from 950-1949 (Wilson 19). Conclusion According to Wilson, over 6000 women have their bodies irreversibly changed and their basic rights violated every day. Although foot binding was considered a fashion statement during the ancient China, it is now considered bizarre and dangerous.
When foot binding was in trend, the women would tolerate the pain and uncomfortableness to look beautiful for their husband and social status. The women would break their own toes and force it in small shoes making them unable to walk properly without support. Even with the explanation of all the health risk it may cause and government banning the trend with monetary fee and death penalties, the women would still trick the inspectors and bind their feet. In the end, they regretted doing it and now have to live being cripple for the rest of their life. They had difficulty in doing every little thing from sitting on the chair to walking.
However, the most unpleasant thing about this trend is that even when the women’s feet were successfully bound, she had to continuously tend to them for the rest of their life. Therefore, foot binding produced severe lifelong disability for many millions of women over the centuries. Foot binding also introduced a bizarre foot fetish. For many of us, it seems hard to believe this type of beauty trend such as foot binding could have existed for 1,000 years, yet, there are still some unusual things that women still do to their bodies in the name of beauty, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, etc.
“True beauty comes from within”. This expression commonly used means that beauty does not lie in physical form but their character and personality. We should spread more of this type of mind set to eliminate such horrendous beauty trends.