Saturday 16 May 2020

The Golden Lotus

A History of Foot Binding in China
Tom Wilkinson-Gamble
BA Modern and Contemporary History

Foot binding, despite its fall from regular practice, still remains one of the most famous traditions of classical Chinese culture. Though the exact origins of the practice remain unknown, it is thought to have started in either the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) or the subsequent Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Throughout the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties foot binding was normally reserved for the upper classes and the aristocracy. By the Qing dynasty, however, the practice had spread to other social classes. 

The actual process of foot binding was typically carried out by the oldest female member of the family. First, the big toe would be broken and forced under the foot. Then, bandages would be wound tightly around the foot. The force of the bandages would distort the growth of the bones and cause the foot to grow into the shape of a distorted heel with an extremely high arch. For the bones to grow in the desired way, foot binding was normally started when the girl was between 5 and 10 years old. Bound feet were known as ‘lotus feet’ and the specially designed shoes they wore were appropriately named ‘lotus shoes’. Because of the disfigurement of the foot, women were forced to walk very carefully and daintily. This was considered attractive, even erotic, in classical Chinese culture.

After the republican government came to power in 1911, foot binding was declared illegal and its prevalence declined. However, in the more rural areas of the country, where the government’s control was far weaker, the practice continued in secret. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the practice is all but dead. In 1999, the last factory producing specially designed ‘lotus shoes’ closed down. As of the 2010s, only a handful of women are known to have bound feet.

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