The History of Foot Binding in China

An elderly lady re-wraps her bound foot

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For centuries, young girls in China were subjected to an extremely painful and debilitating procedure called foot binding. Their feet were bound tightly with cloth strips, with the toes bent down under the sole of the foot, and the foot tied front-to-back so that the grew into an exaggerated high curve. The ideal adult female foot would be only three to four inches in length. These tiny, deformed feet were known as "lotus feet."

The fashion for bound feet began in the upper classes of Han Chinese society, but it spread to all but the poorest families. Having a daughter with bound feet signified that the family was wealthy enough to forgo having her work in the fields—women with their feet bound could not walk well enough to do any sort of labor that involved standing for any length of time. Because bound feet were considered beautiful, and because they signified relative wealth, girls with "lotus feet" were more likely to marry well. As a result, even some farming families that could not really afford to lose a child's labor would bind their eldest daughters' feet in hopes of attracting rich husbands.

Origins of Foot Binding

Various myths and folktales relate to the origin of foot-binding in China. In one version, the practice goes back to the earliest documented dynasty, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BCE–1046 BCE). Supposedly, the corrupt last emperor of the Shang, King Zhou, had a favorite concubine named Daji who was born with clubfoot. According to the legend, the sadistic Daji ordered court ladies to bind their daughters' feet so that they would be tiny and beautiful like her own. Since Daji was later discredited and executed, and the Shang Dynasty soon fell, it seems unlikely that her practices would have survived her by 3,000 years.

A somewhat more plausible story states that the emperor Li Yu (reign 961–976 CE) of the Southern Tang Dynasty had a concubine named Yao Niang who performed a "lotus dance," similar to en pointe ballet. She bound her feet into a crescent shape with strips of white silk before dancing, and her grace inspired other courtesans and upper-class women to follow suit. Soon, girls of six to eight years had their feet bound into permanent crescents.

How Foot Binding Spread

During the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), foot-binding became an established custom and spread throughout eastern China. Soon, every ethnic Han Chinese woman of any social standing was expected to have lotus feet. Beautifully embroidered and jeweled shoes for bound feet became popular, and men sometimes drank wine from women's footwear.

When the Mongols overthrew the Song and established the Yuan Dynasty in 1279, they adopted many Chinese traditions—but not foot-binding. The far more politically influential and independent Mongol women were completely uninterested in permanently disabling their daughters to conform with Chinese standards of beauty. Thus, women's feet became an instant marker of ethnic identity, differentiating Han Chinese from Mongol women.

The same would be true when the ethnic Manchus conquered Ming China in 1644 and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Manchu women were legally barred from binding their feet. Yet the tradition continued strong among their Han subjects. 

Banning the Practice

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, western missionaries and Chinese feminists began to call for an end to foot-binding. Chinese thinkers influenced by Social Darwinism fretted that disabled women would produce feeble sons, endangering the Chinese as a people. To appease the foreigners, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi outlawed the practice in a 1902 edict, following the failure of the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion. This ban was soon repealed.

When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911 and 1912, the new Nationalist government banned foot-binding again. The ban was reasonably effective in the coastal cities, but foot-binding continued unabated in much of the countryside. The practice wasn't more or less completely stamped out until the Communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Mao Zedong and his government treated women as much more equal partners in the revolution and immediately outlawed foot-binding throughout the country because it significantly diminished women's value as workers. This was despite the fact that several women with bound feet had made the Long March with the Communist troops, walking 4,000 miles through rugged terrain and fording rivers on their deformed, 3-inch long feet.

Of course, when Mao issued the ban there were already hundreds of millions of women with bound feet in China. As the decades have passed, there are fewer and fewer. Today, there are only a handful of women living out in the countryside in their 90s or older who still have bound feet.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The History of Foot Binding in China." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). The History of Foot Binding in China. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The History of Foot Binding in China." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).