Beauty Across Time and Space: Foot Binding in China

*Note: all information and quotations are taken from “Icons of Beauty: Art, Culture, and the Image of Women” by Lindsay J. Bosch and Debra N. Mancoff, pgs 227-240. The book is available on amazon at this link.

Brief Background on Footbinding in China:

When did foot binding start?

The elite women of China first began to bind their feet in the late 10th to 12th centuries, which gradually penetrated the admiring women of the middle and lower classes. The girl’s feet were first encased like a cocoon when she was just six years old. From that point on, the bindings were replaced every two weeks with clean, tighter bindings. As time passed, bones would be broken, toes would turn under, and the normal flat foot would give way to the perfect high-arched form known as the “golden lilly” or the “lotus foot.” The bindings would not be permanently taken off until her later adolescent years.  Although the pain would eventually dissipate, their feet would never bloom like the cherished lotus flower. They would be maimed for the rest of their lives.


Why did foot binding start?

Many theories have arisen as to why foot binding seeped through Chinese society without any noticeable objections. While modern America does not hold tightly to any myths, much of the old world based their traditions on specific myths. China was no different.

First, there was the myth of  the nimble dancer, Yaoniang, who danced for the royal Li Yu. The sovereign, enamored with her beauty and grace, ordered a giant golden lotus to be constructed, complete with carvings, ribbons, and jewels. He then demanded that she wrap her feet to further enhance their dainty arch.  When she came out of the lotus and danced, her Thumbelina-like feet seemed to float across the stage

Then there was the myth of Pan, another fairy-like dancer in the court of the duke of donghun, who ordered her to step across lotus petals made of brittle gold leaf. As she danced across each petal, they barely bent as if they were springing like a miniature trampoline under her light steps, and the duke appropriately exclaimed “every step a lotus.”

Finally, let’s not forget the most famous story of all: Ye Xian, also known as Cinderella in the western half of the world. Ye Xian, an orphan, lovingly cared for a fish until her malicious stepmother devours it. Ye Xian is heartbroken until a spirit appears out of the magical fish remains, and Ye wishes for a silk coat and golden slippers. When she appears at the spring festival, everyone, including her stepmother, admires her beauty. However, once she catches sight of her stepmother, she runs away, leaving one golden slipper behind. The King marvels at the tiny size of this lost slipper and searches the kingdom until he finds it’s true owner, Ye, and he marries her.


But foot binding represented more than just outward beauty to the Chinese. Women were taught to be compliant and obedient, even unto death. More specifically, women were taught to obey the “Four Virtues” listed out in The Book of Rites: 

1. “Womanly virtue encompassed moral responsibility and wisdom.”

2. ” Womanly deportment addressed a woman’s personal appearance and behavior.”

3. “Womanly speech defined the means by which a woman expressed her thoughts and the degree of freedom she had to express them.”

4. “Womanly work encouraged a woman to excel in appropriate domestic endeavors but not to flaunt her skill”

Foot Binding pruned women into the woman described by these four virtues. “Enduring the pain tested her moral capacities and taught her to control her will. Caring for her feet and learning to walk with grace improved her deportment. She learned to silence her complaints, marking the boundaries of woman’s speech. And, by making her own shoes, she acquired skill with a needle and thread, the essential form of womanly work” (pgs 227-228).

“If you love your son, you don’t go easy on his studies. If you love your daughter, you don’t go easy on her footbinding” (old Chinese proverb). What we have to realize is that having small, arched feet went beyond aesthetic appeal. A perfectly shaped foot represented obedience, compliance, grace, good character and good rearing. Lack of a bound foot meant lack of marriage prospects.  In fact, English missionary Samuel Pollard (19th century) said, “A girl with a three inch sole and an ugly face” was more likely to marry well than a girl with an unbound foot and a “face like a madonna.”

When and why did foot binding finally stop? 


In the middle of the 19th century the camera was first introduced, and western photographers started taking pictures of the Chinese women’s morphed feet. This was probably done against their will, as women’s feet were never supposed to be seen without their usual ornamental shoes. This brought shame on a woman.  However, as these photographs passed through the hands of the other side of the world, westerners expressed shock and horror at this civilization’s mutilating practice in the name of beauty (nevermind the fact that western women were wearing rib cracking corsets). Nevertheless, westerners first initiated the downfall of footbinding in China simply by trying to talk them out of their age old custom. The, in 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed, the republic was established, and the women were encouraged to “loosen or remove their bindings to demonstrate that China was ready to take it’s place in the modern world.” Although this was impossible for the older women who could not endure the pain brought on by freeing their so-long-cocooned feet, less and less of the younger girls started the process. The third and final step came in 1949 with the new Communist rule and the resulting creation of the People’s Republic of China. This new regime began an entire campaign that mocked bound feet, going so far as to call it an unwanted reminder of their past “oppression and historical decadence.” As cruel as it may seem, especially to the older women who could not simply unbend their feet, the campaign worked. The last reported foot binding was in 1957.

My Response:

I have to say that researching this topic was fascinating, as you can probably tell from my semi-extensive summary masked under the heading “brief” (I promise I cut a lot out!) I never realized that foot binding was so wide spread in China, nor that it literally determined a woman’s destiny.

448px-Woman's_corset_figured_silk_1730-1740While we always hear about the Chinese lotus feet as the ultimate example of suffering for beauty or the oppression of women, we are not so very different here in America. Women in the west used to have lower ribs surgically removed in pursuit of the O’Hara waist. Well, that was back then you say. How about this: in 2010 plastic surgeons performed 318,123 breast implants and 133,511 nose jobs. And the numbers have risen since then.

I am reminded of Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”) because we are so quick to judge other cultures simply because we don’t understand them. We didn’t grow up in China when foot binding first started, and it was associated with the elite, even with royalty. We weren’t little girls who were beaten until they succumbed to the bindings at age 6. We weren’t Chinese parents who knew that deforming their little girl’s feet was the only way that she would have a chance for a decent marriage. And we don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a culture where small feet are associated with the epitome of femininity and grace.

But I will tell you what we do know. We know what it’s like to grow up in America when being skinny means beauty and acceptance. We know what it’s like to be little girls who watch princess movies where the beautiful, skinny girls always win the prince. We know what it’s like to flip through magazines and see stick thin models in tight dresses and short skirts. And our parents know what it’s like to try to raise confidant girls in this same society. This same society that they know will ignore, exclude, or mock us if we aren’t their version of “skinny.”

Foot binding began with high class royalty, and filtered down to the common people in China, and “ultra-thin” began with high class celebrities and filtered down to us, the everyday folk in America. The Chinese wanted tiny feet, we want tiny bodies.  The Chinese mutilated their feet, we mutilate our bodies.  The Chinese thought their beautiful shoes looked best on tiny feet, we think our beautiful clothes look best on tiny bodies.

So before you laugh or criticize what the Chinese, Muslim, or American women do for beauty, remember that you only know what it’s like to grow up in your own culture.  You don’t know the pressures that others grew up with.


2 thoughts on “Beauty Across Time and Space: Foot Binding in China

  1. I never thought about Chinese feet binding as being similar to the things we do in our culture to conform to stereotypical “beauty”. This was an interesting and well-researched post. Your opinion and conclusion really tied the column together to make it applicable to your audience!

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