The Final Few in an Old Age Tradition

16 Apr

The final traces of a long and contentious tradition are gradually coming to an end. The last Chinese women with bound feet are now over 80. In a recent Guardian article journalist Fraser Newham caught up with Madame Han, one of the final Chinese women with bound feet. She reaffirmed our belief that there are now very few traces left of this practice ‘I am one of the last left, you know’ she says. The origins of footbinding are controversial. Tradition places the birth of the practice in the imperial court of the late 10th century – aristocratic women, the story goes, envied the graceful small feet of a particularly beautiful palace dancer, giving rise to a fad which spread to towns and villages across the country. This was the story mothers passed on to their daughters as they tightened the bandages.

A taboo subject in Chinese history, footbinding reflected China’s backwardness, when foreigners arrived in China particularly in the 20th century they noted the barbarity of this practice. In a period when countries around China were modernising such as Meiji Japan and Russia under Peter the Great, this process of binding a girls foot thus reducing her mobility explicitly reflected how far China was behind these otherwise modernising nations.

There is much here we don’t know; what we do know is that the process of binding a foot was agonising – so painful that by some estimates one girl in 10 died of shock in the first few days. Beginning when the girl was perhaps aged six, the mother would wrap a 10ft bandage around her daughter’s toes, forcing all but the big toe to fold back underneath the sole. This would be tightened over time, causing constant discomfort – and because it restricted the blood supply to the extremities there was a good chance it would cause necrosis of the foot, as in cases of frostbite.

The significance of the practice operates on several levels. A bound foot, particularly when showcased in a slipper, was considered attractive in itself. The disfigured female foot became the centerpiece of foreplay; men would caress a lover’s slippered foot, or drink Chinese brandy from her shoe. To the women themselves, bound feet were a mark of femininity; and undergoing (and surviving) the binding process served as a female rite of passage. A girl’s carefully crushed feet also communicated important messages to society at large. It demonstrated that a particular family did not require its women to work in the fields. It showed acceptance of traditional Confucian ideas of a woman’s passive social role.  

“The girl with a three-inch-sole and an ugly face has a better chance in the matrimonial market than a five-inch-soled girl who might have a face like a Madonna,” a Victorian missionary observed. For perversely, the practice was a kind of leveller – a girl’s prospects were not automatically determined by what nature gave her, but by her willingness to undertake self-cultivation as perceived.

The question that comes to my mind when I read about this practice is why did Chinese women continue to bind their feet for approximately a thousand years? It is important to consider the practice without criticism in order to understand the symbolic and personal meanings of footbinding, which embraced a number of purposes. Its origins may be perceived as a means of enforcing the imperial male’s exclusive sexual access to his female consorts, ensuring their chastity and fidelity, but its impact extended far beyond these boundaries.

As time went on and the practice spread throughout China, the foot became so compressed that women usually hobbled about with difficulty, or had to lean on a wall or another person for support. This became especially severe among upper-class women, who became more or less confined to their boudoirs. They were physically prevented from moving about freely and unchaperoned, and were thus rendered incapable from succumbing to infidelity. A young girl from a wealthy family would often receive a body servant at the time of her initial binding, to look after her personal needs during wakeful nights of pain and carry her into the garden when her feet were too painful to walk on. This often developed into a life-long relationship which provided mutual psychological dependency, as well as comfort, affection and companionship.

Sanctioned by tradition and exaggerated over time, the practice was supported and transmitted by women and believed to promote health and fertility, although the reality was that bound feet were malodorous and virtually crippling. Although the bound foot was described as aesthetically pleasing compared with the natural alternative, complications such as ulceration, paralysis and gangrene were not uncommon, and it has been estimated that as many as ten percent of the girls did not survive the “treatment”.

While the atrocity of this practice is conveyed here, one only has to look at contemporary society to see the similarities between the long tradition of footbinding and the current trend of cosmetic surgery. At some levels of society, Chinese women are still willing to endure pain to conform to an ideal of beauty. Cosmetic surgery outfits are now big business – in 2003, for instance, the Ninth People’s hospital in Shanghai performed an industrious 70 cosmetic operations a day. Looking outside of China one could argue that the practice of footbinding is not so different to the practice of wearing a corset, particularly prevalent in America. The similarities are clear – both are aimed at improving the girl’s appearance, both are painful and both are also used in sexual fetishism.

Levy, H. (1966) Chinese footbinding: the history of a curios erotic custom. Virginia: W Rawls.

Wang, P. (2002) Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. Washington: Anchor Books.

Newham Fraser. NF. (2005) The Ties That Bind. The Guardian, 21st March, 17. [Accessed 15th April 2013]



One Response to “The Final Few in an Old Age Tradition”

  1. jc35g10 April 17, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Although it is sad that a cultural tradition is soon to die, it appears to be a positive thing. Many feel that it is a good thing that women do not have to face disfigurement and pain anymore simply to adhere to what society, and men, deemed as a attractive. Footbinding started around 1000 years ago and was essential for women who wished to marry and gain social mobility. It was commonly found that over 90% of women in most towns would have bound feet. However, as soon as China was opened to the Western world in 1850, many expressed their horror at the prospect of footbinding. It was then that leaders began to think that this may hold the country back from modernisation and so efforts were made to change this practice. Incentives were given to those who did not bind their daughter’s feet and men were encouraged to marry those without footbinding. Nowadays, footbinding is non-existent and the tradition has died out. However, it can be argued that society is now obsessed with new ways of editing and changing your body in order to appear more attractive to others. Nevertheless, the end of footbinding is, no doubt, a positive thing, as it often disabled women, meaning they could not walk. This means that now women have more independence, hopefully more power, and many less medical issues as a result.


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