Chinese Footbinding


The ancient Chinese custom of footbinding caused severe life-long suffering for the Chinese women involved. When researching the subject of footbinding, one of the difficult things is finding factual knowledge written before the 20th century. Most of the historical data has been gathered from writings, drawings and photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries. Additionally, the research indicates that the historical documentation was mainly from missionary accounts and literature from various anti-footbinding societies. These groups had a bias because of their opposing viewpoints. The first documented reference to footbinding was from the Southern Tang Dynasty in Nanjing (Vento 1). Although the history of footbinding is very vague it lasted for at least one thousand years.

Early text referred to the Han Dynasty as people who preferred that the women have small feet (Vento, 1). Vento also acknowledged the first documented reference to actual binding of the feet was from the Tang Dynasty in Nanjing (1). Before the Sung Dynasty Binding was only slightly constricting, allowing for free movement, they were also thought to have used footbinding to suppress women. The Yuan Dynasty introduced binding into the central and southern parts of China. It may have been emphasized to draw a clear cultural distinction between the Chinese and their large footed conquerors, the Mongols. Footbinding was most popular during the Ming Dynasty, if parents cared for their sons they would not go easy on their studies and if they cared for their daughters they would not go easy on their footbinding (Levy, 47-49). One recent study estimated that there are still one million women in China with bound feet. The last Chinese women, still living with bound feet in Hawaii, was in 1994 (Kam, D-6).

There are many legends of how footbinding began, one such legend is Lady Yao, a dancer and concubine for Prince Li Yu, danced with such grace that the prince required her to bind her feet to resemble new moons all the time. Another, is that it began out of the sympathy for Empress Taki who had club feet (Aero, 112-113). Although it has not been proven how footbinding started, one of the biggest reasons the practice continued for over 1000 years was it's sexual appeal (Kam, D-1).

Humans have shown they will do just about anything- good, evil, or in-between for sex. Footbinding is a very bold issue that many Chinese do not like to talk about. Some men felt troubled because it suggests that men are capable of using their superior social position to coerce women to conform to a grotesque and deformed custom. Women are uncomfortable because it is unsettling to think that their ancestors crippled their own daughters just to meet a social standard behavior. In the past Chinese pornography reflected a preoccupation with feet and the men who adore them called "lotus lovers". It became the signature of the Brothel culture. Prostitutes would expose their feet "in a private chamber" where it was customary for the man to linger over the girl's feet, stroking, sniffing and licking them and even dipping them in tea before drinking it. A favorite delight was to eat almonds from between her crushed toes. Tiny feet were found in the writing of poetry and songs in old China (Vento, 3-4). With the body weight on the heels, the walk caused the muscles of the vagina to tighten, Chinese men claimed that making love to a woman with bound feet was like making love to a virgin. The important part of the foot was the crevice that was created by breaking the arch during the original binding process. This crevice was sometimes treated like a second vagina in lovemaking (Jackson, 108). In western society we also admire the small foot, some women wear their shoes a size too small. In Victorian days the women would bind their waists in 14 inch corsets, cutting off their breathing and damaging their organs (Kam, D-1). Some women today have breast implants knowing they risk getting cancer. Some women and men go to ridiculous lengths to fit in with societies values. The beauty of bound feet was a value deeply rooted in the Chinese sexual psyche (McDowell, 63-64). The feet were only unbound for cleaning and for love making. This allowed men to fantasize about the feet. They were told that looking at an unwrapped bound foot would forever destroy their aesthetic pleasures (Seagrave,