China’s history of foot binding, a sensitive style issue that has strongly influenced China’s style-intensive history. Moreover, the practice offers a powerful historic reflection on the cost of attaining beauty standards that cannot be reversed. Temper hacks a path through the thick jungle of fables and truth.
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Considered barbaric by modern social standards, the practice of foot binding lasted up through the middle of the 20th Century, despite being banned in 1912 under the laws of the newly risen Republic of China (1912-1949).
We will never truly know how the practice began as historic accounts of its origin vary. The centuries-long phenomenon has throughout history inspired wide speculation on what the ritual factually meant. No iron-clad conclusion exists as of today.
Taking things one step further — no pun intended — the socially detrimental values that underlie China’s history of foot binding arguably continue to endure. Even dictating the continuation of narrow beauty ideals well into the 21st Century. Time to unwind the bandages.
Bound and Gagged
The epitome of female refinement in China for at least a millennium, one may argue that foot binding was also designed to act as a token of female oppression and social deprivation. A token of a high-end social status, i.e. not needing those feet for work, the practice gave women the opportunity for social mobility. According to the official narrative. Something remains to be said for the low-end status of females reflected by this practice throughout that one millennium – if not longer.
Socially mobile they may have been, yet due to their literal immobility the women whose feet were bound, had become bound to their living quarters.
Whereas countryside girls with bound feet may have served the economic purpose of creating yarn and fabric by weaving and spinning their hours away inside their rooms, fact remains (from a modern Western POV, true) that with no means to venture outside and set foot in the real world, these women did not play a part in society. Their society was ruled by men. In retrospect, the sensitive style issue of foot binding denotes the ultimate female subjugation.
Nevertheless, everything is 20/20 in hindsight….
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Whereas Europe had the corset for women, China had foot binding. Believed to have begun during China’s Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-979), one romantically-inclined legend tells us in fabled manner how Emperor Li Yu’s favorite consort Yao Niang danced in a spell-binding way on a six-foot high golden lotus pedestal decorated with diamonds and pearls – granted, that last part come from 20th Century Prince and The Next Power Generation.
Her feet bound like in white silk imitating the shape of the crescent moon like a modern-day pointe ballerina, the concubine performed a ballet-styled dance on the points of her feet — on top of the lotus. The enchanting display is said to have inspired the other females at court to do likewise.
In the rather less moonlit version involving violins and candle, another story re-counts that during the Shang Dynasty (circa1600 B.C.) — the earliest dynasty in traditional Chinese history supported by archaeological evidence — the ruling concubine Daji allegedly suffered from clubfoot. She asked the emperor to make foot binding compulsory for all girls sitting courtside so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. And so, legend has it, China’s history of foot binding began. Sounds rather more plausible.
Put Into Practice
Acting as an enforcement of China’s historically patriarchal beliefs, Chinese women swayed awkwardly through the centuries when foot binding existed, exotically and erotically as they entered the cult of femininity. For the standard-focused society, the lotus feet themselves provided a quantifiable and uniform standard to aspire to. Begun during childhood when a female’s feet were more malleable, each foot was broken, folded in on itself, wrapped and the bindings were sewn shut to allow the foot to reform in the surreal petite arch shape that these women were forced by society to adopt.
Grandfathered into a practice that was almost exclusively practiced by Han Chinese women: For the rich the bandages were reported to be changed daily; for the more aspirational families out there, this meant several times a week.
The lotus foot itself had three levels of distinction, the golden lotus which was three Chinese inches in length, approximately four inches or 10 cm, the silver lotus four Chinese inches and the bronze lotus five Chinese inches. The higher the ranking, the more marriageable a woman was considered to be.
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Narrow Nuances of Individuality
Considered barbaric by modern social standards, the practice of foot binding lasted up through the middle of the 20th Century, despite being banned in 1912 under the laws of the newly risen Republic of China (1912-1949). Through the Chinese looking glass, although beauty standards have transformed, the underlying structure remains the same.
Culturally speaking, the Middle Kingdom has always celebrated narrow-society-defined ideals, set-in-stone specific standards an individual should try to achieve to be deemed alluring attractive, successful, enviable. Superficial and shallow perhaps, but today’s mainstream ideals continue to follow the same narrative that seeks to remove the unexpected charm of that je ne sais quoi nuance of individuality that truly does make someone arrestingly beautiful in a memorable way.
What once was foot mutilation has become the mutilation of individuality in today’s uniform fashion sensibilities that dictate the market’s cohesive trend followers. It can be found in the faces of today’s millennials and Gen Zers who willingly embrace and invest in any KOL-inspired phenomenon to achieve contemporary social standards. Ye cliché big eyes, a shaved jaw, possibly cheek implants and throw in a nose job… “Why not?” says an ever-growing demographic. Nonetheless, with this social conformity comes a cost. This is an identity crisis that is likely to make today’s socially acceptable norms come to be the same relic that foot binding is as the country’s society continues to evolve.
If anything, foot binding provides a powerful parallel offering a historic reflection on the cost of attaining beauty standards that cannot be reversed without giving the irreversible procedures required to get there any deep, let alone critical, thought.
When examining through this lens, the story becomes somewhat clearer when we consider how a superficial aesthetic shows society at-large was not self-reflective about collectively dashing off a cliff. Rarely thought about or spoken of today, the socially detrimental values that underlie this historic practice continue to endure. Even dictating the continuation of narrow beauty ideals to this very day.
For those who continue to be interested in the topic, there are variety of ways to look deeper into this fastly fading history from Jo Farrell’s book and photography project Living History to Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates’ 2017 economic look at the practice Bound Feet, Young Hands: Tracking the Demise of Footbinding in Village China. You can listen to a podcast or visit Toronto’s Bata Shoe museum – post-pandemic talk, obviously – to check out their collection which includes lotus shoes. Or dip into fiction with Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
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When taken less than literally, China’s history of foot binding can be a powerful lens to re-examine modern-day Chinese society and our own social norms. What is acceptable in our countries or today that through the changing looking glass of time that will become the future norm of barbaric behavior? An interesting question to ask that makes the practice of foot binding more than a mere shock factor or an automatic judgment of rejection through the changes of time.
If history has shown us on thing, it’s that, sometimes, beauty is the beast.
FEATURED IMAGE: The feet of then 77-year-old Zhang Yunying photographed at her home in 2005 by Jo Farrell for her book Living History: Bound Feet Women of China. Photo: Jo Farrell
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