Footbinding in Traditional China Essay

This essay has a total of 3753 words and 15 pages.

Footbinding in Traditional China

Footbinding in Traditional China

In the beginning of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the heroine, Scarlet
O’Hara grips a bedpost while her maid squeezes her torso into a corset, so that her
waist will be 17 inches. During the late Nineteenth century, in the United States, it was
the fashion for women to have tiny waists. Unfortunately, this fashion came at the cost of
broken ribs and damaged internal organs. The corset compresses the stomach, as well as
dislocating the kidneys, crushing the liver, squeezing the heart and hampering healthy

Throughout history, fashion and style has come at great costs to many women. However,
there are few modes of attaining the prescribed image of beauty at any particular time
that have been as entrenched in culture and as detrimental to a woman’s health as
foot binding. From the young age of 6, girls had to endure the torturous process of
breaking the arch and curling the toes under so that their feet would fit the ideal
"golden lotus."(See Appendix C). The term golden lotus is a euphemism for the three to
four inch, painful and mutilated foot that was so revered in China from the tenth-century
up until the twentieth-century.

Although footbinding is a terrible custom, it is unfair to judge it with modern eyes. Many
cultures in the past and presently have customs that could be considered barbaric. Even in
the United States in the Twenty-first-century, women and men mutilate their bodies with
copious piercing and tattoos. Yet, unlike the passing fad of modern day piercing,
footbinding lasted for hundreds of years, through shifting times and dynasties, and could
not be eradicated until the communist revolution regardless of previous legislation.
Clearly, footbinding was a cultural manifestation representing something more than the
fickle whims of fashion.

Footbinding has a rich history. Footbinding’s social implications go far beyond its
physical pain, into the role of women in Chinese society, and the male fetish. It became
more than just a fashion but a necessity to achieve a good life and even a good after
life. Women of all social standings bound their feet, whether they were court ladies or
prostitutes. Some of the peasants would even bind their feet, only in a looser fashion so
that they could achieve the upper-class look but still work in the fields. Even, on
occasion, men would bind their feet for various reasons. Before modern, western thinkers
can judge this custom, its history and implications must be fully explored and understood.

The Binding of the Foot
When a girl turned six or seven she would have to endure two pains. In the first month of
her sixth or seventh years she would have her ears pierced, soon after she would have her
feet bound. Her mother would consult the lunar calendar to make certain it was an
auspicious day for her daughter’s feet to be bound. If the girl’s feet were
bound on the wrong day it was thought that the process would be more painful or that the
foot would not come to the desired shape. The date was usually in the autumn so that the
cold winter would numb the foot during the painful formation period.

When the chosen day came about the mother would soak the daughter’s feet in warm
water with herbs or warm animal blood. After they were thoroughly dried, all of the dead
skin and flesh was rubbed off. The toenails would be clipped so that they would not dig
into the foot after it was bound and thus cause infection. Then the foot was massaged with
alum to keep it from sweating. After that, bandages two inches wide and ten feet long of
white (or dark blue in poorer areas) cotton were used to wrap the feet. One end was placed
on the inside of the instep. It was pulled across the small toes in order to force them in
towards the sole. The big toe was left unbound, so that the finished foot would come to a
point. The wrapping was then brought around her heel to force the heel and the toes
together. This process was repeated until the entire bandage was applied (see appendix A).

Directly afterward the mother would force her child to walk on the newly bound and painful
feet. The foot was bathed and rebound frequently. It was put into progressively smaller
shoes. The entire process took about two years. However, even after the foot had achieved
the desired shape and size, it had to remain bound for the entirety of the girl’s
life so that it would not try to heal. The result was a three to four inch foot. The cleft
between the toes and the heels should be two to three inches deep. The foot should be
narrow, fleshy and smooth, and come to a point at the toe of the shoe. (See Appendix B).

Health Implications
Footbinding had many physiological effects. It created an outside swelling of the abdomen;
a line down the back due to the muscle stress and the lumbar vertebrae would curve
forward. Footbinding forced a woman to focus her weight on her lower body putting a lot of
pressure on the pelvis, which caused it to expand in diameter and to lower the height of
the pelvis. It also caused the sacrum to be longer and wider. This practice not only
effected a woman with pain but it also effected her entire body causing it to become
deformed as well.

The Origin of Footbinding
The exact origin of footbinding is unknown. There are several legends about the source of
footbinding. One story is that a fox bound his feet to conceal his paws so that he could
impersonate the last empress of the Shang dynasty. This fox began a palace fashion.
Another story says that the last Shang empress had a clubbed foot. She did not want to be
seen as deformed so she made her husband make footbinding obligatory for all girls. This
way her deformity was the model of beauty.

Most scholars believe that footbinding could be attributed to later dynasties. In the
T’ang dynasty, women were encouraged to be athletic and bound feet would have
prevented that. The general consensus is that Prince Li Yu, the last monarch of the
Southern Tang, had a favorite concubine who was a very good dancer. She danced on a
platform shaped like a lotus, and also toe-danced within a six-foot high golden lotus
flower. She would bind her feet by wearing silk socks that she would gently bind with
narrow bands of silk that would make her dancing look more seductive. At the time of the
late Tang many women took part in a popular form of artistic dance and the effect was
achieved by binding feet. Over time the binds became tighter and tighter and dancing
became impossible.

The History of a Tenacious Custom
Once footbinding began it spread throughout China. At first only the court dancers
practiced it, but soon it became customary for all of the court ladies to bind their feet.
Soon after it proliferated to the wealthy and eventually even those people who lived in
poverty bound their feet. The custom started in northern China but eventually expanded to
the south.

During the Sung there was a change in masculine points of view. Contrary to the Tang there
was now a conservative attitude towards remarriage and chastity. There was also less
liberty and intellectual freedom given to women. In the Sung dynasty, the qualities
defining a woman as virtuous changed; she should have little talent, and no education.

By 1273 the Mongols had overturned the Sung dynasty and created the Yuan dynasty. The
Mongols encouraged footbinding probably because it weakened the Chinese by impairing their
women. The Mongol Empire began to crumble in the next century, and when it fell in the
mid-1300s, the Ming dynasty took its place. The Ming proved to be the dynasty that would
bring footbinding to its most popular point.

During the Ming, footbinding received official and popular sanction. Women with natural
feet were considered ridiculous and clownish. Bound feet were referred to in poetry,
literature and novels. The foot represented a sense of mystery since it was so rarely seen
by anyone, not even a woman’s husband. Footbinding was so popular in the Ming
dynasty because of the heavy stress of virtue, like that of the Sung dynasty, on the Ming
women. Footbinding went along with virtue because it immobilized women, preventing them
from committing acts that would be seen as inappropriate for women. The close of the Ming
period was also the pinnacle of footbinding, when it was at its most popular.

In the mid-1600s the Manchus invaded and created the Qing Empire. They were strongly
opposed to footbinding. The Manchus saw footbinding as a barbaric custom that proved that
they were superior to the Chinese and legitimized their rule. To prove their superiority
the Qing set up laws prohibiting footbinding, threatening families with fines if they
bound their daughters’ feet. Women with bound feet were barred from the imperial
harem. The father of a child with bound feet would not only be fined, but if he were an
official he would be fired, and if he was a commoner he was flogged forty times and
exiled. However, people continued to secretly practice it in defiance of the governmental
decree. The practice had become such a strong part of Chinese culture and tradition that
it was impossible for a government to end it with law and punishments. People would give
false birth dates, so that the government would think that a girl’s feet had been
bound before the law had begun and would therefore not punish the family. The Qing did not
try to change the people philosophically so the Chinese still saw the tiny foot as
desirable even if it was illegal.

As the eighteenth-century came to a close, anti-footbinding began to get support from many
liberal scholars like Yuan Mei. He argued that admiring small feet was inappropriate
because it caused people to ignore other important features. Authors like Li Ju-Chen and
Kung Tzu-Chen also opposed the practice. The Christian missionaries also had a strong
influence against it. As they converted women, they encouraged them to unbind their feet
because they were changing part of god’s creation. Women who did not unbind their
feet were not allowed in the church or in the Christian boarding schools. Many
anti-footbinding societies were erected in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth-century. Yet people born as late as 1900 still faced footbinding.
"Anti-footbinding and the granting of women’s rights were indivisible" and these
rights did not fully come about until the Communist revolution.

The nationalist revolution helped to perpetuate the decline of footbinding, but the
entirety of equal rights from the communists was necessary to finally stop the practice.
Once the communists took over in 1949, women began to be treated equally. Footbinding had
to be outlawed because it prevented women from working, and all the people of China had to
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