Footbinding (simplified Chinese: 缠足; traditional Chinese: 纏足; pinyin: chánzú, literally "bound feet") was a custom practised on young females for approximately one thousand years in China, beginning in the 10th century and ending in the early 20th century. In Chinese foot binding, young girls' feet, usually at age 6 but often earlier, were wrapped in tight bandages so that they could not grow and develop normally; they would, instead, break and become highly deformed, not growing past 4-6 inches (10-15 cm). As the girl reached adulthood, her feet would remain small and dysfunctional, prone to infection, paralysis, and muscular atrophy. This was initially a common practice only in the wealthiest parts of China, particularly in areas around northern China. However, by the late Qing Dynasty, foot binding had become popular among people of all social classes except the poorest, who needed able-bodied women to work the fields. Today, it is a prominent cause of disability among some elderly Chinese women.
If a girl's feet were bound in this manner, sometimes beginning as early as age five, four toes on each foot would break within a year; the first ("big toe") remained intact. The arch had to be well-developed for the perfect "lotus foot" to be formed, so some women would bind their girls' feet at a later age; the ideal was a 3-in. foot (gold lotuses), and no longer than 4 in (10 cm), called silver lotuses. Bound feet would bend, becoming so concave they were sometimes described as "lotus hooks". The binding process resulted in intense pain and caused phalanges to fracture easily, and additionally resulted in an unsteady fashion of walking, referred to as the "lotus gait."
The earliest recorded opponent to footbinding was a writer from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) called Ch'e Jo-shui. The Manchus who conquered China in the 17th century tried without success to abolish the practice. Manchu women were forbidden from binding their feet or the feet of their daughters. Instead they wore 'flower bowl' shoes which gave the illusion of tiny feet. Bound feet became an important differentiating marker between Manchu and Han.  One of the objectives of the Taiping Rebellion was to stop foot binding practice.
The practice continued into the 20th century, when a combination of Chinese and Western missionaries called for reform and a true anti-footbinding movement emerged. Educated Chinese began to understand that it made them appear barbaric to foreigners, social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation (for enfeebled women inevitably produced weak sons), and feminists attacked it because it caused women to suffer.. In 1911, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Republic of China government banned foot binding; women were told to unwrap their feet lest they be killed. Some women's feet grew 1/2 - 1 inch after the unwrapping, though some found the new growth process extremely painful and emotionally and culturally devastating. Societies developed to support the abolition of footbinding, with contractual agreements between families promising their infant son in marriage to an infant daughter that would not have her feet bound. When the Communists took power in 1949, they maintained the strict prohibition on footbinding, which is still in effect today.
According to a study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco,"As the practice waned, some girls' feet were released after initial binding, leaving less severe deformities." Some effects of foot binding are permanent, and today, some elderly Chinese women still suffer from disabilities related to bound feet.
Foot binding is rarely practiced today. Many people would treat the behavior as child abuse and punish it accordingly. It is commonly cited by sociologists and anthropologists as an example where an extreme deformity (by the standards of both contemporary societies and from a medical viewpoint) can be viewed as beauty, and also where immense human suffering can be inflicted in the pursuit of a beauty standard.
Bound feet were considered intensely erotic. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet.  Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, as they were always concealed within tiny "lotus shoes". Feng Xun is recorded as stating, "If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever." For them, the erotic effect was a function of the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. The very fact that the bound foot was concealed from men's eyes was, in and of itself, sexually suggestive. Foot-binding became a symbol of wealth and power, as a woman with bound feet could not work.
A mother or grandmother started to bind her daughter's or granddaughter's feet when the child was around 4-7 years old. The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to properly develop so that the feet were numb, meaning the pain would not be as extreme. Binding usually started during the winter months .
First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood. This concoction caused any necrotised flesh to fall off . Then her toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent ingrowth and subsequent infections. To prepare her for what was to come next the girl's feet were delicately massaged. Silk or cotton bandages, ten feet long and two inches wide, were prepared by soaking them in the same blood and herb mix as before. Each of the toes were then broken and wrapped in the wet bandages, which would constrict when drying, and pulled tightly downwards toward the heel. There may have been deep cuts made in the sole to facilitate this .
This ritual would be repeated every two days, with fresh bindings. Every time the bandages were rebound they would be pulled tighter making this process continually painful. The most common ailment of bound feet was infection. Toenails would ingrow and could lead to flesh rotting, occasionally causing the toes to drop off. Disease inevitably followed infection meaning that death could result from foot binding. Occasionally, the ball of the foot would grow directly into the heel. As the girl grew older, she was more at risk from medical problems. Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls and were less able to stand up from sitting.
Images of Foot Binding in Literature
The bound foot has played a prominent part in many works of literature, both Chinese and foreign. These depictions are sometimes based on observation or research and sometimes on rumor or supposition. This is only to be expected when a practice is so emotionally charged, especially when Western authors are writing about China. Sometimes, as in the case of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth the accounts are relatively neutral, and in some cases, as in Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love the author has read widely.
Li Juzhen (1763-1830) wrote a satirical novel Jinghua yuan, translated as Flowers in the Mirror which includes a visit to the mythical Kingdom of Women. There it is the men who must bear children, menstruate, and bind their feet. The recent Chinese author Feng Jicai's (b. 1942) novel Three Inch Golden Lotus presents a satirical picture of the movement to abolish the practice.
It is also depicted in a comic called Flinch], where a girl tells a fantastical tale about the magic of her footbinding, while the pictures show a much more terrifying experience
^ Levy, Howard S: The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Tradition of Foot Binding in China. New York:Prometheus Books 1991
^ Hwang, David Henry: The Golden Child. http://users.rcn.com/frances.interport/feetbinding.html
^ Cummings, S & Stone, K: Consequences of Foot Binding Among Older Women in Beijing China. American Journal of Public Health EBSCO Host. Oct 1997
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