Footbinding is an excruciating mutilation that physically and psychologically suppressed Chinese women. The practice of binding endured for several centuries in a patriarchal society that abided by the Confucian principle of ‘The Five Relationships’. A single association contained a female relation – husband to wife. It is the cultural emphasis on the role of the man as a dominant figure and the woman as a weakling that tolerated the subjugation of women. The act of footbinding emphasized the primary function of women in ancient China: “product and the property of [the] family.” 1
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The specific origin of footbinding is not known because of the presence of conflicting ancient artifacts and narratives from different dynasties. The earliest mythological source of footbinding originates from the Shang Dynasty (1766 BCE – 1027 BCE). The tale recounts the story of Empress Ta-chi, a hu-li-jing ² who concealed its paws underneath bindings professing “she wore them to preserve her feet’s beauty and keep them from growing.” ³ Emperor Chou-wang was so entranced by her “delicate bound feet [that] were likened to lotus blossoms” 4 that he mandated the rite of footbinding in his empire. An alternative reference to footbinding is derived from the Tang Dynasty (617 BC – 978 BC). The historical account about Emperor Li Yü reveals his affection for a consort named Yao Niang (Lovely Maiden), a “slender-waisted beauty and a gifted dancer.” 5 The Emperor fabricated a six-foot-high replica of a lotus out of gold, “it was decorated lavishly with pearls and had a carmine lotus carpel in the center.” 6 Yao Niang was instructed to bind her feet with white silk cloth to emulate a moon sickle ascending the clouds, symbolizing the new moon or the moon goddess, Chang’e. Prior to representing bound feet, the “golden lotus” initially represented a pedestal for palace dancers. Tang Confucianists expressed the lotus as a symbol of purity and rebirth as it rises above the muck in a lotus pond. According to twelfth-century writer Chang Pang-chi,”The custom probably started in the imperial harem â€¦ The palace may have, in effect, started a vogue for a special and artistic dancing effect achieved through footbinding which slowly set the fashion for the rest of the Chinese world.” 7 However, the fact that Li Yü’s mistress was “natural-footed” is noteworthy as it reveals that Tang binding was an act plagued by superficiality and not disfigurement or confinement. Tang compositions illustrated women as “robust and vigorous physical types” 8 that participated in athletic activities such as horseback riding and footballing. Women retained liberal attitudes towards remarriage and obtained an education devoid of gender bias. The subjugation of women by means of footbinding emerged in the Sung Dynasty (969 BC – 1279 BC) as “several noted thinkers took a dim view of feminine liberty and intellectual freedom, laying the groundwork for the belief that a woman of virtue should be a conventional lady of little talent.” 9 The Sung philosopher Chu Hsi, a governor in Chang Prefecture of Fukien, directed a form of binding in accord with the Confucian social ordering to confine women to the domestic sphere. Limiting the mobility of Fukienese women prevented immoral acts such as elopement and adultery. The primary function of women according to Confucianism was to produce male heirs to the ancestral line – a domestic affair. A discourse composed in the Yüan Dynasty (1279 BC – 1368 BC) fortified the act of footbinding as a technique to safeguard feminine chastity. The philosophical outlook of footbinding as a method of restriction prospered “in a nation whose outlook on feminine morality became increasingly stringent.” 10
The sought-after dimensions of the “lotus” depended on the proficient execution of binding each foot. Footbinding was customarily performed during the period of childhood since a child’s bones are soft and flexible – extremely malleable. Daughters of aristocratic families were bound between the ages of 4 to 8; daughters of working-class families were bound at the age of 12 and above. The process was conducted by a mother and/or grandmother – a matriarchal ceremony. The ritual symbolizes the irony of the woman subjecting herself to male domination: “It was a solemn occasion marking the girl’s coming of age, the first step of her decade-long grooming to become a bride â€¦ tinted with a bittersweet awareness that as women, they could gain power only by way of their bodies.” 11 The tools utilized were common household items as it was a craft gained through heredity and not specialization. The bandage was approximately two inches in width and ten feet in length – long enough to secure a firm bind.
“One end was placed on the inside of the instep, and from there it was carried over the small toes so as to force the toes in and towards the sole. The large toe was left unbound. The bandage was then wrapped around the heel so forcefully that heel and toes were drawn closer together. The process was then repeated from the beginning until the entire bandage had been applied.” 12
The actual shaping of the foot occurred through the use of “toad shoes”, an assembly of training shoes that gradually reduced in size. Dressed in the binding, the feet were forced into a series of shoes progressively decreasing in size every two weeks. The pressure gradually shortens the length of the foot, condenses the width of the sole, and causes the arches to curve upwards so that the forefoot and the hindfoot are positioned perpendicularly. Ancient herbal remedies were concocted and applied to accelerate healing and alleviate pain. The abnormal maiming produced detrimental effects including toes dropping off due to a lack of blood circulation, decaying of flesh due to pressure sores, and immobility due to the weakening of the lower leg caused by a lack of use. The child endures agony for a year, roughly speaking. Comparable to mending a broken bone, once the midfoot bones have hardened through “remedial” healing, the moon shape is achieved. The deformity was concealed with coverings that is then adorned with the lotus shoe.
Footbinding was established as a “distinguishing mark which set the aristocratic lady apart from the plebian class” 13 in the Yüan Dynasty and Ming Dynasty. Parallel to the mechanism of trends, the popularity of footbinding gained momentum in the Ming Dynasty – dispersing to the far reaches of China. Women obtained power through their diminutive feet – footbinding operated as a “stratifier” for the privileged and “provided the means of upward movement in the marriage and service markets.” 14 Aristocratic lineage was associated with the number of female members with bound feet in a family whereas marital suitability depended on foot size. Women with the smallest bound feet were located in the northern provinces of China; in contrast, “not all daughters from elite families have bound feet” 15 in southern localities. The abundance of bound feet in the north may have been a deliberate “cultural distinction between themselves and their large-footed conquerors.” 16 However, the more plausible argument is simple: “the small foot symbolized aristocracy and beauty.” 17 Petite feet and a slender waist – ideal features of a woman with bound feet were achieved through idleness and incapacity. Noble women with bound feet were transported from one area to another in sedan chairs. By eliminating the complications of travelling, a high-class woman was able to attain a smaller shoe size as a pampered existence permitted tighter bindings. The immobile state of the female represented the luxury to be waited on hand and foot – an extravagance maintained by wealth.
A dire consequence of footbinding arose when underprivileged individuals imitated the trend popularized by the upper classes. Common families deferred the act of binding until the age of thirteen or fourteen so that the child would not require much supervision and not be a burden to the family. In addition, binding was delayed as the child was required to perform manual labor to aid the family’s financial situation. “By then the feet are already grown, as the mothers knew full well. But without thinking too deeply, they bound their daughters’ feet even more tightly so that they would become small. The daughters, screaming and crying from pain, would be whipped.” 18 The desperate measures taken to mimic the upper classes shows that the repercussion of footbinding as a prerequisite of beauty and matrimony trickled down the social ladder. The fashion of bound feet retained the components of being in a clique – one was either in or out. Prior to the industrial revolution, women manufactured handicrafts in the household to put on the market as a source of income. Modernization increased competition in the local marketplace consequently eliminating domestic textile producers. Agriculture served as an alternate source of income, requiring women to toil in the fields during harvest season. Rural women with bound feet had to get used to walking long distances and performing labor intensive activities. In an account titled “The Twin-Hooked Maid”, a woman describes the torture bound feet brought to a life of common rank: “I was compelled to walk on them in the courtyard; they were called distance walking shoes. I strove to cling to life, suffering indescribable pain.” 19 Those that were hampered by their deformity were of no value to the family. Mortality rates amongst the disadvantaged were disproportionately high. Death was their only form of rebellion – “To die for beauty, than live for bread.” 20
The victory of a betrothal agreement was accredited to footbinding. Arranged marriages were coordinated by the heads of the family with the appointed service of matchmakers. The patriarchal society perceived daughters as an asset that can be bartered for a sizeable bride price. Footbinding was a rite of passage that advanced familial societal status as marriage principally secured the interest of the family, not of the daughter. A bride-to-be fabricated a pair of lotus shoes that a matchmaker would present to the groom’s family. The prospective bride is evaluated by the dimensions and intricateness of the shoes as it represented her “womanly work.” 21 A lotus shoe was the manifestation of feminine submission. Betrothal shoes were termed “Good Fortune” in the north and “Stepping in the [Bridegroom’s] Hall” 22 in the south. Adages were embroidered on the lotus shoe: “Harmonious for a Hundred Years” and “Wealth and Eminence Until Our Hair Turns White.” 23 Women that were not blessed with the idyllic three inch “lotus” were mocked:
“Her face is passable, / But those big feet, laughable! / A large-footed woman tarries, / For no one wants to marry her, / You say they resemble feet? / They look more like twin boats in a fleet.” 24
Provided that matrimony was determined by bound feet, it was acknowledged that “If you care for a son, you don’t go easy on his studies; if you care for a daughter, you don’t go easy on her footbinding.” 25 The inherited act of binding embodied the fervent bond between mother and daughter,
“The ordeal entailed an exchange between mothers and daughters on many levels. Outwardly, it informed a daughter of the necessity of sacrificing the products of her body in service to the Neo-Confucian family system. Inwardly, the ordeal embodied for a woman – at the deepest level of her being – the lived memory of her mother.” 26
This concept opposed the view of women as agents of their own oppression in a patriarchal culture; more willingly, the act of binding signified a mother’s aspiration to provide her daughter with a better life. Immersed in irony, the binding of one’s feet was the only way of gaining value in a male dominated society.
Footbinding was overtly recognized as a customary ritual throughout the Ming Dynasty as bound feet were considered “normal” while unbound feet were “abnormal”. In his commentary “On Binding Feet”, scholar Qian Yong stated that “It seems as though feet cannot be left unbound, for it supplements the face in establishing a female’s beauty.” 27 At the height of the obsession, women willingly suffered to achieve the idolized ‘golden lotus’ as “Binding was as highly regarded for the proper woman as learning was for the cultivated man.” 28 Feminine instinct encouraged the use of adornment to attract a mate – footbinding was the external enhancement. Women knowledgeable in fashioning bound feet were “masters of optical illusion”. 29 It was a fact that bound feet were larger than the lotus shoes worn as it was “the binding cloth that manipulated the shape of the foot to conform to a certain shoe style.” 30 Utilizing a legging or a leg sash concealed the bulk of the foot, displaying the diminutive lotus in full splendor. The three inch spectacle played a significant part in the man’s world as it was a source of pride, affluence, and pedigree. The driving force behind male reverence of the lotus was its function as a status symbol, a requirement for marriage, and an instrument to satisfy fetishes. Binding “modified” the female shape – a lovely face, slender legs, slim waist, curved buttocks. German scholar H. Laderland theorized that the “tiny-footed woman was eagerly sought after as a bedmate because she gave the same sensation to the male as a virgin.” 31 Medical evidence disproved the assertion that bound feet transformed the ‘apparatus’ of the vagina; nevertheless, belief conquered the mind’s eye. Artistry in the form of literature, poetry, and pornographic drawings intensified the yearning. Gentlemen identified as “lotus lovers” 32 were connoisseurs that “listed the necessary aesthetic components of the praiseworthy tiny foot.” 33 Seventeenth century playwright Li Yu stated that,
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“The best way to ‘test’ a woman’s feet is none other than asking her to walk about back and forth. Observe if her motion is agile or stiff, natural or forced, and you get a very good idea. A pair of feet that is bound straight is agile, if crooked it would be difficult to move about. If properly balanced [zheng], the pair of feet is natural, if lopsided [wai] it is contrived.” 34
Proper footbinding altered the gait of a woman that heightened the grace of her stride. Men were attracted to the weak feminine posture produced by binding as it pronounced the physical authority they had over women. Their frailty represented the inferior rank retained by women in Chinese social hierarchy. Women were dependent on their husbands because of a lack of physical freedom. Confined to the household, a woman was perceived as the overseer of domestic matters or a plaything used for sexual acts. Deemed a drawback to over-educate the weaker sex, a woman possessed a limited array of skills making one incompetent to compete against men in the external sphere. Bound feet literally kept women in their place. In effect, women specialized in the art of footbinding to conquer the psyche of men. Whether it be the bride-to-be’s elaborately seamed lotus shoe exhibited to enter into a family of wealth or the concubine exchanging pleasures to gain notoriety, women utilized the erotic appeal of the lotus to seduce men. The bound foot was a psychological fascination that “appealed to both the senses and to the imagination.” 35 Fang Hsün, author of “Classification of the Qualities of Fragrant Lotuses”, 36 expressed the traits of bound feet that were superior and inferior. Apparently, it is the men who have a say in what is aesthetically pleasing and what is not. Fang Hsün advised his fellow men, “Do not remove the bindings to look at her bare foot, but be satisfied with its external appearance. Enjoy the outward impression, for if you remove the shoes and binding the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever.” 37 The aesthetic function of bound feet ultimately objectified women as sexual icons stripped of personality and voice. Women were depicted as sexual objects as they were solely evaluated by a single physical attribute, “A tiny foot can atone for three-fourths of a woman’s ugliness.” 38 The lotus symbolized the concealed desires of a traditional society that openly ordered their subservient women to dress appropriately, abide by Confucian law, and remain in the household. A double standard existed in the varying worlds of the genuine versus the simulated, what a man wants versus what a man needs.
The Qing Dynasty established in 1644 formally instigated the liberation attempt. The Manchus attempted to “injure the natural harmony” 39 by eradicating the deep-rooted custom of footbinding. The Manchus perceived footbinding as an ancient tradition that held the nation back from advancement. Wives with bound feet were labelled “the tiny-footed servants.” 40 Emperor Kangxi outlawed footbinding in the year 1662, however the sanction was withdrawn in 1668 due to a psychologically immovable populace. It was said that “on the eve of footbinding’s decline, the paraphernalia of footbinding reached the height of its glory, surpassing previous centuries in rapidity of stylistic changes and ornamental techniques.” 41 The first female anti-footbinding attempt entailed the writing of a thesis as a means of propaganda for the literate. It discussed the “immorality” 42 of footbinding citing a Confucian doctrine that identified the body as a “gift bestowed by one’s parents” 43 that must not be mutated. In 1855, an estimated 8 out of 10 women had bound feet. 44 The earliest anti-footbinding society was arranged by Reverend MacGowan of the London Missionary Society in the year 1875. He coined the term tianzu, or “heavenly feet”. In spite of this, academics claim that the diffusion of the movement can be attributed to a series of local reformers that supported the abolition of binding – commencing with Kang Yu-wei and Liang Chi-chao in 1882. They were succeeded by Kang Kuang-jen who organized the Unbound Foot Association in 1894. He composed a document that appealed for national prohibition and directed all women to “let their feet out.” 45 Kang criticized the archaic system of China in contrast to forward-thinking nations: “Now China is narrow and crowded, has opium addicts and streets lined with beggars. Foreigners laugh at us for these things and criticize us for being barbarians. There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as footbinding.” 46 The Great Powers of Europe and America were commended for their “strong offspring” 47 that did not have their mobility impaired by their mothers. The youth embodied the strength of a nation. Kang put forth the question, “With posterity so weakened, how can we engage in battle?” 48 Kang did not merely tackle national predicaments, he confronted those on a global scale. He received the support of more than ten thousand followers. In her article “Perspectives on Foot-binding”, Dorothy Ko stated that: “The denouncement of footbinding was rooted in the sense of embarrassment that individual male reformers felt deep in their bones as China came under the gaze of the white men.” 49 The progress of the emancipation movement was initially slow-moving because it was discredited as an “alien idea imported from the West.” 50 Nonetheless, natural-foot societies were launched in all over the country. To combat footbinding, members took an oath declaring the discontinuance of binding and marriage of sons to women with bound feet. In Shanghai of 1895, a ladies’ society instituted a school for girls that taught only those with natural feet. Lectures against footbinding were inserted into the school curriculum to transmit awareness to the youth. In 1895, ten women of diverse nationalities unified to solicit assistance from the Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi. Seven years later, the Anti-footbinding Edict of 1902 was issued. Opposition to footbinding surpassed the decline of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). In 1957, the People’s Liberation Army erected barricades in the streets of Yunnan to coerce young women to unravel the binding cloths that fastened them to social inequity. This was the last recorded anti-footbinding venture in China – “[F]oot-binding is dead, and so are most of the women who once had their feet bound.” 51
Yes, footbinding figuratively and literally stunted the growth of Chinese women. Yes, the prohibition of footbinding was required to eliminate discrimination against women in China. Yes, footbinding epitomizes social inequality. But do we not continue to see others forms of gender discrimination in our world? Diverse cultures practice female mutilation rituals: neck rings of the ‘Long Necked Karen’ in Burma, female genital cutting in Northeast Africa, breast ironing in Cameroon, forced fattening in Mauritania, sati in India. A footbinding apologist criticized the natural order in his statement, “Permanents and plucked eyebrows were imported from abroad. If China were now the greatest power in the world, wouldn’t every foreign women today be studying footbinding?” 52 Normal practices such as tattooing, nose piercing, cosmetic surgery, wigs, hairstyling, corsets are subtle forms of feminine oppression. These beautification rituals are stimulated by the emphasis on appearance – enhanced by fashion magazines, up to date films, television shows, etc. In the Philippines, billboard and magazine advertisements look as if they were taken straight out of the pages of FHM, Maxim, or Playboy. These advertisements, free of parental regulation and peer judgment, are highly accessible in the streets of Metro Manila. Women are depicted as sexual objects as they are solely evaluated by their physical attributes. These “mannequins” destroy the wholesome image of the Filipina by overtly selling sexuality. Belo Medical Group explicitly advertises cosmetic surgery, specifically breast augmentation, by displaying a model who has obviously undergone the surgery wearing a flimsy silk bra. The advertisement directly appeals to the male populace for apparent aesthetic reasons. In comparison, the Bench Body advertisement exhibiting Jake Cuenca in a pair of Spartan-like floral briefs generated controversy because “the advertisement is an intentional and blatant disrespect for family values.” 53 Atty. Romulo Macalintal, a veteran-elections lawyer, stated “that good advertising conforms not only to the law, but also to the generally accepted standards of good taste and decency, and to moral and aesthetic sentiments of the country.” 54 We live in a superficial society. A shallow, patriarchal society that unknowingly (or intentionally) portrays women as the ‘overseer of domestic matters or a plaything used for sexual acts’ (previously mentioned). The recording of footbinding is not only to be utilized as a means to illustrate our progress of social equality, it should be used as marker to distinguish if we learned anything from history – “It would seem that we have not progressed since we once engaged in footbinding as a beautification (and thus power-enhancing) strategy, while presently we have foot-beautification surgery for the same purpose.” 55 (3,725 words)
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