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 children. 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.
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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. 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).
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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).
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 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. 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.
a) Whilst women werent trained in medicine during this time period, their traditional roles as healers and midwives were still important ones but women only ever performed them. These roles were mere extensions of their status as housewives as can be seen by the way the performed such tasks. Women would use their knowledge of herbs to concoct remedies for the sick and they would record them in ...
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.
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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 work for the government. The Communist takeover marked the official end to foot binding, because women finally became equal and were no longer subordinate to men.
Kang Youwzi, a late Qing reformer was correct in his belief that women’s emancipation must go through three stages of social evolutions. First there would be disorder, then increasing peace with equality, and finally complete peace and equality. It took the chaos of the nationalist revolution, and once they took power women had increasing peace and equality. When the communists finally took over they achieved total equality. Once women finally had total equality footbinding was able to come to an end and women were able to live a life free of that physical torture. The Social Implications of Footbinding “Women from time immemorial and throughout the world showed a willingness to maim themselves to achieve male-defined standards of beauty and win love and admiration.” Such a painful and crippling custom cannot totally be an effect of the whims of fashion. There are many reasons as to why families would torture their young daughters with footbinding, but they are mostly speculation and it is difficult to understand how any reason could make footbinding an agreeable idea. The possible reasons include the sexual attraction of the bound foot, the shapely figure that the limping women took on from tottering on her feet, and the supposedly seductive walk that resulted from the deformed feet.
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However, sexiness is not the only reason. It also differentiated men from women, upheld conservative Chinese beliefs, kept women weak, and was thought to be a mark of gentility. Lin Yutang, a contemporary scholar and author, believes the foot was bound for sexual purposes. The bound foot harnessed a great deal of sexual power. The foot was mysterious. Its furtive nature aroused curiosity amongst men. The Chinese female was concealed from men for most of her youth, hidden in the house. The hidden feet followed this idea of the concealed female. The foot was always wrapped, and even when women slept they wore slippers. Sexual positions were often based upon the manipulation of the bound foot. It also had the erotic enticement of sadomasochism, bondage and domination. A woman was weak because of her bound feet and could therefore be at the mercy of her lover, which was sexually exciting to many men. Furthermore, some men had odor fetishes, and enjoyed the smell of the feet. It was common to use the foot in foreplay. Many men took pleasure in kissing, sucking, and chewing the foot. They would place it on their bodies, or even eat from it. Men would also use the crevice of the foot to stimulate their genitals.
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There were also many drinking games in which the men would try to drink from a cup placed in the shoe. A large part of the experience of prostitution was the drinking game. One such game involves tossing seeds or beans into the prostitute’s shoe. Each guest had a turn to throw the seed into the shoe from a foot and half away. The prostitute would then have the men who missed drink from a cup in her other shoe. Men found this extremely enticing. Besides for the sexiness of the foot itself, footbinding also resulted in a seductive walk and enticing body shape. A woman with bound feet had to walk with her weight on her heals her chest thrust outward, and her pelvis sticking backward. This led to a swaying walk, and that the muscles in the buttock and thigh became more developed creating a more curvaceous body. It was also thought to tighten the skin around the vagina; supposedly making the man feel like the woman was a virgin every time they made love. It was also said that women with bound feet were more attractive because they stepped lightly and carefully. It created a feeling of love and pity from men because of the weak and feminine posture that it created. A woman with bound feet could also, supposedly, move around more easily in bed.
However, footbinding was tenacious in Chinese culture because it fit the traditional expectations of women. Footbinding was “an integral part of a man’s society which taught women to obey a strict and comprehensive moral code hallowed by time and tradition.” The Book of Rights, a Confucian classic, states that women must obey her father and elder brothers in her youth, her husband after marriage and her son after the death of her husband. The Confucian ideal for a woman was to be confined and subjugated by men. This ancient tenet stated, “A woman should never be heard outside her own home.” Footbinding kept a woman weak and easily dominated by her husband. She could not be mentally independent because footbinding restricted her physically. It also reflected well on her husband; if he could afford to keep a wife who was so helpless, he must be successful. Men wanted to marry virtuous ladies, as defined by the conservative changes of the Sung dynasty. This meant that she would be intellectually inferior as well as prepared to perform household tasks. She also must be passive and accept his every whim and desire. She should also have stoical endurance and have her reading restricted.
Foot binding was also a sign of a virtuous woman. If a woman’s feet were bound it almost guaranteed her virtue because then she was unable to leave her quarters without substantial help. This way a man knew that they would have a chaste wife, who would not cheat on them and would still be a virgin when she married, this was a vital part of the Chinese moral standard. A folk song from the Hopei Province recalls this with the chorus: “bound feet, bound feet, past the gate, can’t retreat.” Women were also eager to please men so that they would marry well. Footbinding did not necessarily come about from men, but may have come about from women hoping to ensure marriage. Bound feet attracted men, therefore a mother, in the interest of her daughters’ future, would bind their feet so that they could be married to wealthy men. Women also knew that their tiny feet and beautiful slippers could bring them admiration from men, and if they could entice a powerful enough husband with their perfect feet they could attain great power as well. It also could help a girl increase her social standing if she could marry into a higher class. When a woman would meet her mother-in-law for the first time, the mother-in-law would lift up the hem of the girl’s dress to see her feet and make sure they were small.
The tiny feet proved that the girl could endure pain and would therefore follow orders well. However, bound feet did help a girl to escape a life of hard work because she would be incapable of doing it. During the Ming dynasty especially, a woman had no hope of getting married with natural feet, if a woman could not be married she would be a burden on her family. A girl was considered a guest in her father’s home, not a permanent fixture. If, however, her feet were tiny and attractive, she could achieve a much higher bride price and therefore be an asset rather than a burden on her family. Furthermore, in China, it was very important for women to look different than men. That is why they pierced their ears and wore blush, as well as bound their feet. As the dynasties passed men began to be more refined and effeminate. For example, in the early twentieth-century, the style for men was to wear extremely thin shoes so they would bind their feet with silk socks to keep them slender for the shoes. Women had to work harder and harder to maintain the necessary degree of sexual dimorphism. Footbinding was a way to differentiate men from women. There is no known specific time as to when footbinding began.
It lasted far longer than any fashion ever could, even in the face of legislation against it. There is no single reason why people bound the feet of young girls. Even though it caused internal damage to the body and disabled half of the work force, footbinding was still considered a necessary sacrifice for a girl to endure. Footbinding was not just a barbaric fashion as many people say and it does not reflect an uncivilized society. Footbinding is far more complex than that. Footbinding was part of the Chinese way of life. It was embedded in their culture for centuries; “footbinding proved to be a significant and lasting development in a nation whose outlook on feminine morality became increasingly stringent.” China’s history is perhaps best known for its lack of change and the tenacity of footbinding is one of the many examples of the consistency of Chinese history. Neither Qing law, nor many other anti-footbinding struggles could eradicate the practice. It took the drastic change of communism to finally bring foot binding to its end. Unlike the fashions of today, it did not “go out of style” because it was far more than a fashion; it was a manifestation of culture.
Chinese culture and beliefs supported footbinding, and because Chinese culture did not change for all of those centuries neither did footbinding. “Anti-footbinding and the granting of women’s rights were indivisible.” The role of women in the society had to change before the practice would cease. As long as women were still supposed to be subordinate to men, uneducated, and objectified, they would consider footbinding necessary. If women were treated as equals and did not feel the need to attract a high bride price perhaps footbinding would have stopped sooner. However, women were still seen as objects, not human beings, to be observed by men, and therefore being aesthetically appealing to men took precedence over health. Footbinding cannot be judged as a mere fashion or custom. It was a part of society embedded and supported by numerous aspects of Chinese life. It made a woman desirable, worthy of marriage as well as a high bride price, and appears to be upper class. Footbinding not only crippled women but also was a part of the crippling hold that society had on females.
Bibliography 1. Carlitz, Katherine, Desire, Danger and the Body: Stories of Women’s Virtue in Late Ming China. In Engendering China: Women, Culture and thee State, (ed. Gilmartin, Christina K, Hershatter, Gail, Rofel, Lisa, and White Tyreene), Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1994. 2. Jackson, Beverley, Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Ten-speed Press, Berkeley California, 1997. 3. Levy, Howard S., The Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China, Prometheus Books, New York, 1991. 4. Mo-ch?n, Chang, Opposition to Footbinding, in Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes, (ed. Yu-ning, Li), M. E. Sharpe, Inc., New York, 1992. 5. Pang-Mei, Natasha Chang, Bound Feet and Western Dress, pg. 6, Doubleday, New York, 1996. 6. Zheng, Wang, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, 1999.