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Running Head: Ancient Custom of Foot Binding

Ancient Custom of Foot Binding

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            The ancient custom of foot binding was practiced in China from about the 10th century and ended in 1911 after approximately 1000 years. This practice touched most of the lives of young Chinese girls regardless of their social class. Many questions have been asked regarding this custom. Why were young girls subjected to such a painful custom? How could these young girls’ mothers have participated in such a painful practice? What was gained, or

hoped to be gained, by this practice? This unit will attempt to answer some of these questions and to further the understanding of this custom.

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Foot binding began at about age 4 to 7 on young Chinese girls. The foot was soaked in hot water and massaged then it was wrapped in a way in which the child's toes were turned under and pressed against the bottom of her foot. Her largest toe was left unturned in order to give the girl a sense of balance. The child's arches of her foot were broken as the foot was pulled straight with the leg. This caused the foot to actually shrink. This process took anywhere from three years or longer to complete. The result of this process was a deformed "tiny" foot (about three inches long). Another result was extreme pain for the child, as well as infection, gangrene and for 10% of the girls who had their feet bound death. Some accounts say that when the process was complete the feet were unbound. Other accounts say that the

foot was continually bound because it was more painful to have it unbound. Regardless, of some unclear information regarding this practice, it is without debate that this process kept women from being able to move as their western counterparts. It further rendered them subservient to men and was used as a social control over women for 1000 years.

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Xiao Mai-sunniang walks four blocks every morning to the temple where she sits selling incense all day. She is extremely proud of her tiny two and a half-inch feet, although the life of luxury once promised to one with such extraordinary feet never came to her. She finds it difficult to reconcile that memory with her physical limitations and the modest lifestyle she leads today in Taipei, Taiwan. Less than one hundred miles away, yet a world apart in mainland China lives Guo Zhu-Juan, who hobbles about with great difficulty. She speaks bitterly of the past and of the painful custom of foot binding, which she blames for keeping her both illiterate and a virtual prisoner in her own home for the last 75 years. Further west in a remote village in Yunnan Province lives Li Xiu-ying, who at 66 is as full of life as a spring day. Xiu-ying heads the local women's association and leads traditional dance performances with other village women, some with bound feet, others without. Our perception of her handicap does not exist for her - she feels it perfectly normal, and while she no longer approves of the binding of young girls' feet, she lives her own life free of resentment and full of joy.

Although it is no longer done to young girls, the practice of foot binding is still alive in China. There are thousands of mature women who have bound since childhood, and many others who chose to stop binding and let their feet assume a more natural, though stunted, appearance. Contrary to common belief, these women run the gamut of class and family background, ethnic heritage and geographic location. Their experiences and feelings, as well, range from pride to resentment and anger. These women are the last generation to live out one of China's most ancient and widely practiced customs, and it was our intention to let them speak about their feelings of having bound feet. While much has been written about the custom, virtually all of it has been done by men.

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According to an old saying, "There are a thousand buckets of tears for one who binds her feet", yet for nearly ten centuries in China the focus of a young girl's life was fixed upon this ritual. The responsibility of initiating and monitoring the binding rested with the mother or elder village women, and began for most between the ages of five and twelve. It was a slow, agonizing process of crushing the bones and flesh into the narrow, pointed shape of a crescent moon, the so-called "Golden Lotus". A long strip of cloth was wrapped over the four smaller toes, under the instep and around the heel. By tightening the cloth daily the heel became slender and the toes eventually broken under, flattened against the underside of the sole. Greater tension was slowly applied, sometimes coupled with the strength of a rope, to bring the heel forward to the ball of the foot, breaking the arch and forcing it upward. Once the binding process had begun, regular rebinding became an integral part of personal hygiene for the rest of the girl's life. In the early stages the foot easily became swollen and filled with pus, and would frequently break open. Some women applied alum or washed in scented water to prevent strong odor and infection; others made it a practice to soak the feet in urine to make the skin more supple, relieve swelling, and prevent expansion of the compressed areas. Even for women advanced in age the binding cloth is removed only for bathing and to rebind. Once the heel has been forced forward and the arch broken, the foot must be immediately rebound; it otherwise begins to lose its shape, causing excruciating pain that many women said equals that of the original binding.

The desired result is a normal large toe and ball of the foot that slide into a tiny embroidered shoe with a wooden platform to raise and support the heel. A bound-footed woman can easily be distinguished by her paradoxical mincing gait, just as the western stereotype depicts. Each step is stunted by the inability to roll forward onto the toes, and those with very small feet may appear to be walking on stilts.

Years of suffering were required to finally achieve the ideal three-inch long foot and the diminutive shape of a crescent moon so lyrically described by Chinese poets as the quintessence of a refined female form, much like the western image of a perfectly proportioned 36-24-36 inch figure. Many women found themselves under enormous pressure to rriatch this idealized form, particularly those with positions of wealth or status. This was true of women we spoke to in both urban and rural areas, where even today women over the age of sixty with feet longer than four inches are rare.

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When asked about the purpose of foot binding the overwhelming majority of women responded very plainly that without bound feet it was impossible to find a husband. A normal footed woman was commonly viewed as a freak of nature, and with unbound feet her pain overflowed into not 1,000, but 5,000 buckets of tears. She was considered lewd and unrefined, often subject to mockery and the brunt of village ridicule. At times in certain areas such women were so rare and unbelievable they were thought to exist only in myth. Women of the upper classes could never have imagined finding a husband of equal status without binding their feet, and if a normal footed woman of a lower class could not find a suitable mate among her economic peers, she could hope for no more than to be sold into slavery or service to those who did bind.

The original wrapping of a woman's feet in China was not done with the intention of permanently deforming them. According to historical accounts it was around 970 A.D., during the rule of Li Yu, when the custom began. The ruler's favorite consort, Yao-niang, performed a dance atop a golden lotus pedestal that had been specially built. She had wrapped her feet in long strips of silk cloth, much like a ballerina in toe shoes today. Li Yu was so overwhelmed with the beauty of her movement as she danced that other court maidens followed suit, and "Golden Lotus" became a euphamism for their delicately bound feet.

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What began as a tool to facilitate dancing was gradually adopted as fashion among the upper class, and a custom that was to last a millennium was born. Women began to bind on a regular basis, concentrating ever more intently upon the desired shape and size of the foot. As was perhaps inevitable, foot binding's popularity spread from the upper classes to all levels of society. No longer just a fad, it became a way of life for millions of females throughout China.

During the Song Dynasty (960 to 1276) the position of women in society dropped to a new low. Until this time women had been schooled in the arts and versed in the classics; they held independent rights to property and wealth, and could marry or remarry at will. New ideology, however, redefined their status, laying the groundwork to keep nearly half of China's population obedient and limited in skill and ability. Women's roles were defined only in the context of complete dependence upon men: a female was to remain in the home, where she was required to obey her father and older brother in childhood, her husband in marriage, and her son if widowed. It was considered unwise to educate women, supporting the belief that "in a woman stupidity is a virtue". Her attention, instead, was to be focused on cultivating fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech, and efficient needlework. No longer were women given property rights, but were themselves treated as property, bought and sold or even killed by husbands and fathers with impunity.

The following centuries saw foot binding openly viewed as a method of controlling women and cultivating their moral conduct. During the 1100s the governor Chu Hsi criticized the wornen of Fujian Province for being unchaste and enjoying too much freedom, and ordered them to bind their feet to the extreme. The tiny footed women would then no longer be free to leave the household as they pleased, or engage in the sexual freedoms enjoyed by men.

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Foot binding continued to gain official and popular sanction as an expression of cultural refinement. As women's bound feet and shoes became the essence of feminine beauty, a fanatical aesthetic and sexual mystique developed around them. The bound foot was understood to be the most intimate and erotic part of the female anatomy, and wives, consorts and prostitutes were chosen solely on the size and shape of their feet. An unflattering figure or facial flaws were overlooked if a woman's feet appealed to the man's libido. Poets went to great lengths to expound upon the beauty of the bound foot, vividly describing the delights of "tender blossoms" tucked into tiny embroidered shoes and peeking out from below a billowing garment. Ancient love manuals outlined the sensual pleasures of the bound foot and illustrated countless positions in which they could be fondled and caressed. While the naked feet deformed and camouflaged by binding cloth were rarely, if ever, revealed - even in the most intimate company - women took great care and attention in making shoes to cover them. Considered part of a woman's intimate apparel, the color of shoe and style of embroidery often held great significance, and they were often perfumed or clad with jingling bells and ankle bracelets to attract attention.

Foot binding remained a part of Chinese society well into the 20th century. The Manchu leaders of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) never adopted the custom, and tried with little success to stop its popularity. During the late 1800s reform-oriented scholars and western missionaries began speaking out against the brutal custom, yet it wasn’t until the 1920s that change finally began to take hold. Intellectuals plucked the issue of foot binding from the realm of morals and aesthetics and remolded it into a question of patriotism. Women were told the practice was not only harmful to their own physical and emotional health, but also a costly disability to the nation, retarding its political and economic development. In 1928 the Nationalist government announced its plan to eradicate foot binding, requiring girls under the age of fifteen to let their feet grow naturally. Some local officials took a tougher stand, requiring that all women unbind their feet or be subject to fines and sometimes physical punishment.

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The order to stop binding met with mixed success, especially in rural areas where large feet were still considered highly unattractive and unacceptable. Many women struggled not only with the possibility of becoming social outcasts, but also feared undergoing another period of great inconvenience and agonizing pain. To avoid physical and emotional trauma, releasing bound feet had to be done slowly, by loosening the bindings on a regular basis and allowing the feet to gradually resume a more normal shape. Women who had not bound tightly were able to release their feet without great discomfort. Others who had achieved the highly desired three-inch feet found it impossible, for in so doing they would have been left completely crippled. In urban areas where jobs and education were more available, the practice faded rapidly as women began to demand more rights and to play a role in the financial welfare of the family. In most of China, however, social and sexual customs were resistant to rapid change, and for millions of women it wasn't until the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 that the perpetuation of foot binding finally ended.

The portraits and stories that follow are a glimpse into a private world. As complete and utter strangers we were heartily welcomed into homes by women eager to talk about themselves, women often amazed that we would be even remotely interested in their lives. We were given much more than we had ever hoped to find. Among tears, laughter, and endless cups of tea were questions about our country and culture, including the thought that maybe women bind their feet in America. Within another decade or two, the last remaining women with bound feet in China will be gone, as will one of the most unusual customs ever devised.

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There are many theories regarding the purpose of foot binding. One theory is that women who had their feet bound were less independent and more able to be controlled. In Chinese society it is said that women are ruled by their fathers, then their husbands and finally, by their sons. This was a way to ensure that women did not travel away from that control because literally the pain was too great and debilitating to allow them the freedom to be free. Another theory is that the smaller the woman's feet the more desirable she would be in marriage. One story tells of a mother who tells her daughter that the size of the foot is more important then the attractiveness of the daughter's face in the eyes of a possible husband.

Families needed the security of a daughter marrying "well" to ensure the families place in society. Foot binding was a way to gain this security. A third theory is that foot binding was a way to show status. If a family had a daughter whose foot was bound then they were perceived by their neighbors to be able to have a capable and working member of their family not work. This implied success for the family.


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Blake, C. Fred. "Foot binding in Neo-Confucian China and the     Appropriation of Female Labor", Signs. Spring 1994, Vol.  19

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Davin, Delia. "The Custom of the Country", Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1992. p.28

Feng, Jicai. The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994)

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Jaschok, Maria. Concubines and Bondservants (London: Oxford   University Press, 1988)

Ko, Dorothy. "The Body As Attire: The Shifting Meanings of    Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China". Journal of  Women's History, Winter 1997, Vol.8:4

Levy, Howard S. The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the     Curious Erotic Custom of Foot binding in China (Buffalo,     NY: Prometheus Books, 1992)

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