On 20 October 1998, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, China sent out a press release stating that they were officially halting production of a curious variety of footwear known as “lotus shoes.” This announcement may appear pedestrian to Western eyes, but in a way it was a symbolic epitaph for a bizarre custom which had been in practice in parts of China for about a thousand years: a process known as foot binding.
Until the mid-twentieth century, a girl born into an affluent family in China was almost certain to be taken aside sometime in her first few years to begin a process of sculpting her feet into tiny, pointed “lotus” feet. This body modification was intended to attract suitors and flaunt one’s upper-crusty status. The culture at large considered these reshaped feet to be beautiful, and the dainty gait that resulted from such radically reshaped extremities was seen as alluring, but the process of producing lotus feet was grisly, problematic, and led to lifelong podiatric problems.
The invention of foot binding is not well documented, but the earliest known written records of the practice date back to the Southern Tang dynasty around 937 AD. Some historians believe that the tradition arose when women started imitating the imperial concubine “Fragrant Girl” who was known for her diminutive wrapped feet; others attribute the tradition to a troupe of court dancers who pioneered the process around the same time. Regardless of its origins, these re-engineered feet became fashionable among upper-class Chinese families around a thousand years ago, and it was in practice until somewhat recently.
Generations of trial and error led practitioners of foot binding to master the craft of twisting and reshaping a young girl’s sole. Foot binding was usually conducted in winter months so that the cold could be used to help numb the injuries and prevent infection. Sometime after a daughter of the well-to-do turned 2 years old, and generally before they turned 5, the young girl and her malleable skeleton were taken aside by an elder female family member or a professional foot binder to initiate the foot-altering process. Though there was an old saying that a mother couldn’t love her daughter and her daughter’s feet at the same time, the procedure was seldom carried out by the mother personally because she would likely find it difficult to ignore the child’s considerable distress.
To begin the foot binding process, the foot binder would gently soak the child’s feet in a solution of animal blood and herbs. Her toenails were trimmed and groomed, and her feet were thoroughly massaged. Once the skin was softened and the muscles were relaxed, the foot binder would curl the child’s toes down towards the sole of the foot as far as the bones would allow. The binder would then curl the toes fartherthan the bones would allow, snapping the toddler’s phalanges and forming a kind of twisted foot-fist. No manner of pain relief was employed during this process, so the binder was required to disregard any agonized screams. Next, the arch was broken.
The girl’s foot–now a suitably sculptable sack of bones–was wrapped in long bandages which had been soaked in the secret recipe of herbs and bloods. With each winding the bindings were pulled as tightly as possible, drawing the ball and the heel of the foot increasingly closer and tapering the end of the foot into a point. The wrappings were then thoroughly stitched and allowed to tighten as they dried. Then on to the other foot.
Afterwards, the girl’s feet were periodically unwrapped to clean the crevasses, trim the the oddly oblique toenails, and remove any dead flesh. The foot maintainer might opt to peel the toenails off altogether if they were becoming sites for infection. Sometimes a toe or two would fall off during this process, leaving even more room for reshaping. The girl’s feet were then re-wrapped even tighter than before, causing her footprint to shrink further as the bones slowly fused into their new configuration. Occasionally girls’ feet would fester, and blood poisoning from gangrene could be a cause for concern, but an estimated 90% survived the process.
Once the feet reached their target petiteness of 7.5 centimeters (about 3 inches), the unsightly bindings were adorned with embroidered silk slippers. When a perfectly lotus-footed lady was inserted into society she became a sought-after mate. Her reconfigured feet were made obvious by her distinct manner of walking: a swaying shuffle which came to be known as the Lotus Gait. Bound feet were considered to be sexually exciting to men, and girls who had them were much more likely to land a prestigious marriage. Sex manuals described numerous erotic acts married couples could perform involving lotus feet, but men were warned never to look upon the feet without their shoes and bindings, lest the aesthetic be destroyed forever. Moreover, unwrapped lotus feet were said to have a powerful and disagreeable odor owing to the accumulation of bacteria among the unnatural folds of the deformed feet. Dainty is dandy, but necrotic is not erotic.
Although the practice was initially limited to upper-crust families, people of lesser prestige soon began to conform with the tradition. A lotus-footed wife was not only coveted for her signature locomotion, but her injuries also tended to keep her from wandering far from home. Such women tended to forego participation in society and politics owing to their restricted mobility, and they became dependent upon their husbands and families for the rest of their lives. In spite of their high cultural status their existence consisted of little more than domestic seclusion.
Foot binding remained a popular practice in parts of China until efforts to ban it arose around the turn of the twentieth century. Anti-footbinding reformers educated the populace regarding the outside world’s view of foot binding as barbaric, and taught the practical advantages of unmangled feet. Fear of international ridicule was a powerful motivator, and in a single generation the practice was almost eradicated, yet some stubborn families continued the tradition until it was prohibited by the new Communist government in 1949. Enterprising citizens invented a hobbling shoe that mimicked the trademark shuffle of bound feet, thereby providing an alternate route to social standing, but the stigma overpowered the appeal. Finally, after a millennium of misguided tradition, all Chinese citizens would be on equal footing.
At its height the contorted tradition was practiced by approximately 50% of middle-class Chinese families, and nearly 100% of affluent families. All told, the number of Chinese girls that were subjected to foot binding is numbered in the billions tens of millions. There are a few hundred foot-bound women who still survive, most of them octogenarians or greater. It is easy to look back at the bygone barbarism and wonder how it was allowed to continue for so long, but it is equally easy to overlook how blind one can be to the pressures of one’s own culture. Perhaps one day humanity will learn to recognize the imprudence of inflicting antiquated traditions upon those too young to make up their own minds.