I am in a small mountain village in southern China with an elderly woman who has “Golden Lotus Feet”.
Have you ever wondered about Chinese foot-binding, how it got started, how they did it, and how long it lasted?
According to legend, foot binding began in China during the Song dynasty when the emperor at the time lavished attention on one of his concubines, a lady with exceptionally small feet. The other concubines in the palace grew jealous and did everything in their power to make their feet smaller. The tiniest feet were dubbed “Golden Lotus Feet” or “Golden Lilies” – and they created a fashion statement that would endure in China for over 1,000 years. Astonishingly, the practice of foot binding continued until the 1940’s – despite the fact the government had banned the practice in 1911.
So how did a young Chinese girl obtain treasured tiny feet? First of all, timing was crucial. In order for foot binding to be successful, the binding process had to begin when a girl was very young, anywhere from 3 to 5 years of age. During this stage of foot development, the child’s bones are still soft and growing and their arches haven’t not had time to develop. Food binding was usually begun in the late fall or early winter so the parents could numb the child’s feet with snow or ice and the pain would not be as severe. The toenails were clipped extremely short, and then the feet massaged to relax them and make them more pliable, next the mother, auntie, or grandmother would snap/break the four smallest toes on each foot.
Immediately after breaking the toes, the girl’s feet were plunged into a warm water bath or pan filled with animal blood and herbs. Next, the mother dipped long rectangular silk or cotton bandages in with the soaking feet. These bandages were 10” to 15” long and 2” wide and had to be completely soaked. As soon as the girl’s feet were removed from the pan, the bandages were wrapped tightly around the smallest broken toes and pulled securely in and under the heel, till only the large toe was left free. Even though the young girl usually was screaming in agony, her determined mother, aunt(s), and grandmother worked together to forcefully draw together the heel and toe, breaking the arch.
Every two days the binding was removed and clean bandages applied. In order to try and obtain lovely lotus-flower shaped feet, the long strips of silk or cotton had to be applied so that the toes were forced back toward the arch creating a hook shape. Each time the bloodied bandages were changed, the strips were bound tighter, forcing the toes farther and farther back. This agonizing ritual continued for a little over two years.
If successful, the girl’s feet would eventually be 3” to 4” long. “Golden lotus” feet were highly prized for their 3” length. Anything over 6” was completely unacceptable. The parents would be in disgrace, the girl’s future ruined. Which is probably why the mother, aunt(s), and grandmother could endure the screaming pain of the child – they knew this was a guarantee that she would have a wonderful future. For hundreds of years, the entire population of China believed that only the poorest and most stupid peasant girls had big (normal) feet.
Since walking with bound feet was not only painful but also difficult, the girls had to be carried everywhere. By the time they became young women of marriageable age, they usually had mastered a tottering, swaying walk as they struggled with the pain and keeping their balance: however Chinese men considered this type of walk highly erotic.
Even the girl’s shoes were of the utmost importance. Every girl was taught to cut out the pattern for her shoes, sew them, and finally decoratively embroider them with silk threads. The more ornate the shoes were the better. It was long a tradition in China that marriages were arranged by the families and often, before a girl was married, her parents would take samples of her tiny embroidered shoes to her prospective husband’s parents so that they could see the girl’s sewing skill AND admire the size of her feet. (It is interesting to note that it was also the custom that ladies never allowed their bare feet to be seen by anyone – especially their husbands. Even at night, after heavily scenting their feet, the young married girl would wear special slippers to bed to cover her them.)
In 1911 foot binding was formally outlawed; however, a great many girls were still forced into the practice until the late 1930’s. While I was in China I saw a large number of elderly women in their 80’s still hobbling about on their tiny feet supported by their canes.
Note: Until 1949 the ideal length for women’s feet was 4”!