A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the story on the ancient Chinese custom of binding women's feet?

October 23, 1998

Dear Cecil:

I've always been intrigued by the ancient custom in China of binding women's feet. I've never seen an actual picture of what they end up looking like but have heard them referred to as "lotus blossoms." Do they end up looking like a claw or just little tiny feet? Was this an attempt to further control women by crippling them so they couldn't get away?

Cecil replies:

On the scale of sick things that have been done to women in the name of social custom — well, I guess clitoridectomy has to be at the top of the list. But foot binding is surely number two. (Those wasp-waisted Victorian corsets that distorted the rib cage are a good candidate for number three.) It was perpetuated by one of the world's great civilizations for a thousand years, during which time hundreds of millions of women were crippled for life, in most cases by their own mothers. The tiny feet that resulted were to Western eyes not beautiful but grotesque. One hesitates to traffic in ethnic cliches, but I have to tell you, the East didn't get much more inscrutable than this.

Since time immemorial small feet have been prized in China and for that matter in many cultures. (One recalls Cinderella's tiny glass slipper.) Actual binding of the feet, however, probably didn't begin until around the tenth century. Initially it was practiced by dancers at the imperial palace, who are thought to have performed on a rug or stage having a lotus design, hence the term "golden lotuses" for bound feet. From there it spread to the women of the imperial court, then to the upper classes, and finally to Chinese society as a whole.

Since the dancers could still dance, presumably binding wasn't taken to extremes at first. But over time tinier and tinier feet became prized. Ultimately the ideal foot was one not exceeding three inches in length.

Foot binding was a cruel, painful process that began when a girl was around five years old. A bandage two inches wide and ten feet long was wrapped around the foot in a figure-eight pattern so that the arch was compressed and the four smaller toes were bent under. The foot was then jammed into a shoe several sizes too small. Over a two-year period tighter and tighter bandages and smaller shoes were used until the desired result was achieved. The bones broke, pus-filled sores developed, the flesh putrefied, and occasionally a toe dropped off. A few girls got gangrene and some died. The final product was a sort of clubfoot, less foot than hoof.

Why? Part of it, to be sure, was the subjugation of women. A woman with bound feet couldn't walk unaided and spent most of her life in her quarters where her faithfulness could be assured.

What's weirder is that Chinese men found these deformed and often foul-smelling feet erotic. Bound feet were said to keep the woman's lower body tense during walking (what little she could manage), enlarging her buttocks and tightening her vagina, thereby increasing the male's sexual pleasure. Seeing the unbound foot of one's lady drove men nuts. The tiny foot was a focus of foreplay and was featured in pornography. One of the bigger kicks was drinking wine from cups placed in tiny shoes.

You're thinking: these guys were nuts. I suppose in principle Chinese foot fetishism wasn't any stranger than Western males' obsession with the female breast. But come on, a Wonderbra doesn't leave you lame.

Foot binding survived sporadic reform efforts and lasted well into the 20th century. Though outlawed in 1911 around the time China became a republic, it wasn't stamped out in some parts of the country until the 1930s. The "natural foot" campaign succeeded in part because of the improving status of women in Chinese society, but a big factor was the recognition among educated Chinese that the West considered the practice barbaric.

Anti-foot-binding campaigns could be quite cruel in their own right, with tiny-footed women forced to abandon their bindings, which often proved scarcely less painful than binding in the first place. But the aim was achieved; foot binding is unknown in China today. It now survives only in the West, in the form of spike heels.

Footnotes

Dear Cecil:

In your column on Chinese foot binding, you mentioned that small feet have been prized in many cultures, using as an example "Cinderella's tiny glass slipper." While your point is well taken, you missed a chance to mention the story behind Cinderella's unusual footwear. In the original folktale, Cinderella wore (in French) une pantoufle en vair (a fur slipper). Because the word vair was uncommon, the 17th-century French translator thought it was verre (glass). Cinderella has been wearing glass slippers ever since.

Cecil replies:

Great story. It appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica at one time, and the French writer Balzac believed it. But the consensus among folklorists is that it's, well, folklore.

The Cinderella story we know today was published in 1697 by the French author Charles Perrault in his book Tales of My Mother Goose. Perrault based the story on an oral fairy tale that, interestingly, seems to have originated in ninth-century China. Perrault made many changes to the crude peasant original to sanitize it for a bourgeois audience. For example, in some early versions Cinderella's sisters cut off their heels and toes in order to fit into the glass slipper.

But Perrault didn't invent the glass slipper, and it probably didn't arise from vair/verre confusion either. As the French folklorist Paul Delarue pointed out in a 1951 essay, "one can also find [glass shoes in Cinderella stories] in other countries where there is no homonym which permits the confusion." For example, glass shoes appear in an old Scottish version of the Cinderella tale as well as in several stories in Irish folk literature.

As for the argument that glass slippers must be a mistake because they aren't realistic … no shit, Sherlock. Why do you think they call these things fairy tales? But glass footwear does suggest that its wearer is a creature of elegance and delicacy, which of course was the point.

Dear Cecil:

So today's breast fetish can't compare with the old Chinese foot fetish, complete with foot binding? What about all the American women who now mutilate their own breasts, paying big sums for surgical enlargement? Sure, they do it voluntarily, but mostly because of American culture. It can affect the rest of us too, as when Dow Corning was bankrupted by a class-action settlement of $3.2 billion to compensate women "injured" by their silicone-filled breast implants, despite a lack of scientific evidence of any link.

Cecil replies:

You make my point for me. Women today get breast implants voluntarily, as adults. Foot binding was imposed on unwilling and often traumatized Chinese girls while they were still children — a huge difference. One guy chided me for not considering the historical context and blah blah blah. Screw the historical context. Just because the Chinese thought the ritual mutilation of women was cool for a thousand years doesn't mean it didn't suck.

Dear Cecil:

In your column about Chinese foot binding, you placed the Victorian corset as the #3 cruelest fashion practice. Isn't there a culture (Indonesian, maybe?) that used to put metal rings around girls' necks to lengthen the neck? The neck ultimately becoming so long and weak that the girl could not hold her own head up. Removal of the rings would be fatal. The corset can at least be taken off occasionally.

Cecil replies:

If I described every bizarre thing done to women in the name of beauty I'd be writing a book, not a column. You're talking about the Padaung, also known as the Kayan, who live in Thailand and Myanmar. Some women (traditionally only those born on Wednesdays when the moon is full) wear up to five kilograms of brass rings that extend their necks to the size of a baby giraffe's — as long as ten inches. The process begins before puberty and compresses the rib cage and collarbones. For a recent news account and photo, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayan_people_%28Burma%29.

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