by Sarah Corbett
For 1000 years tiny curved feet were considered the ultimate level of beauty in China. During this period around 3 billion women bound their feet.
The most likely origin of the practice is from the time of Emporor Liyu ( 937 – 975 AD). Entranced by the form of the feet of a favourite dancer he had her feet wrapped to accentuate them. Other women of the court who wished to please the emperor also began to wrap their feet. The fashion spread to upper class women and eventually beyond. True to the extremes of fashion smaller feet and tighter binding became desirable, leading to foot binding and 3 inch feet.
The practice was outlawed in 1912, however some continued secretly to foot bind until the 1950’s.
Communism in China meant that women were required to undertake harsh physical labour, so the foot binding became impossible to perpetuate and for the bound woman to survive.
The lengthy and painful process of foot binding was begun when a girl was between 4 – 7 years old her soft, tender bones would be manipulated to bring the four smallest toes to the underside of the foot and to pull the heel and toes closely together. This was achieved by a process of washing the feet and trimming the toe nails as closely as possible, drying the feet and applying alum, manipulating the toes and wrapping tightly in strips of bandage. Nthe process would snap the bones in the arch of the foot over time. The feet would be unwrapped, cleaned, dried and new tighter bandages applied every two days. To ensure that the young girls did not attempt to loosen their bindings they were usually stitched into place. Once the desirable 3 inch foot was achieved the bindings remained, as the foot could easily lose the form without the constant compression.
Bound feet were normal and unbound feet were considered ugly and even freakish.
The diminished mobility of the women meant that they were dominated by their husbands. However the knowledge that perfect bound feet could lift a young girl out of a life of poverty led mothers to continue the painful and debilitating practice.
The women created delicate silk embroidered shoes to wear over their binding. These shoes were considered so important that it was required that a girl owned four pairs before marriage.
Notably the Manchu and those from Guangdong regions of China did not practice foot binding.