One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity and Demise

March 7, 1998

In addressing the subject of footbinding, one primary difficulty becomes apparent - that much remains within the realm of the unknowable. Any factual knowledge about the practice may only be drawn from 19th- and 20th-century writings, drawings or photographs. In addition, many of these documents represent a distinctly Western point of view, as they are primarily composed of missionary accounts and the literature of the various anti -footbinding societies.[1] The historical origins of footbinding are frustratingly vague, although brief textual references suggest that small feet for women were preferred as early as the Han dynasty. The first documented reference to the actual binding of a foot is from the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing, which celebrates the fame of its dancing girls renowned for their tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes.[2] The practice apparently became the standard for feminine beauty in the imperial court, spreading downward socially and geographically as the lower classes strove to imitate the style of the elite. [3]
In its most extreme form, footbinding was the act of wrapping a three- to five-year old girl\'s feet with binding so as to bend the toes under, break the bones and force the back of the foot together. Its purpose was to produce a tiny foot, the "golden lotus", which was three inches long and thought to be both lovely and alluring.[4] It is believed that the origin of the term "golden lotus" emerged in the Southern Tang dynasty around 920 A.D., where the emperor Li Yu ordered his favorite concubine, Fragrant Girl, to bind her feet with silk bands and dance on a golden lotus platform encrusted with pearls and gems. Thereafter, women inside and outside the court began taking up strips of cloth and binding their feet, thinking them beautiful and distinguished, dainty and elegant. It gradually became the prevailing style and "golden lotus" became a synonym for bound feet.[5]
One notable personality who aided in the spread of footbinding was the famed writer and scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 A.D.), whose commentaries on the Confucian classics would form the canon of Neo-Confucianism that would dominate Chinese intellectual and philosophical life for six subsequent centuries. An ardent advocate of footbinding, he introduced the practice into southern Fuijan in order to spread Chinese culture and teach proper relations between men and women, greatly influencing other writers who mention the practice as if it were normal.[6]
Another factor contributing to the difficulty in assigning a point of time and origin to the practice is that the spread of footbinding was neither standardized in style nor universal in practice.[7] With local variations in method of binding, desired contours, age of initiation, paraphernalia, rituals (both public and private), shoe patterns and terminologies, it became impossible for a "master narrative" to emerge. Although some girls had their feet bound in the extreme and painful golden lotus style, others had their feet bound in less contorted manners that "merely" kept the toes compressed or limited the growth of the foot without breaking any bones.[8] In some areas and among some social groups, such as the Hakka in southern China, women\'s\' feet were generally not bound and even among the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties the practice was not strictly observed.[9] Despite these exceptions, however, footbinding was more commonly practiced than not.
Imperial acceptance aside, the question that remains is why did Chinese women bind their feet for approximately one thousand years, until forcibly prohibited by the government? It is important to consider the practice without criticism in order to understand the symbolic and personal meanings of footbinding, which embraced a number of purposes. Its origins may be perceived as a means of enforcing the imperial male\'s exclusive sexual access to his female consorts, ensuring their chastity and fidelity, but its impact extended far beyond these boundaries.[10] Since the family was the most important organizational unit in Chinese society, and the family and the state often portrayed as analogous to each other, the emperor and the empress were cast as mother and father to the people. The imperial family was set the task of serving as an exemplary model to the families of the elite and, on a steadily