Chinese Foot Binding – The Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum: Why did the practice start? What was the foot-binding process? Who tried to stop it? Is anything like it happening today?
Thus just the idea of Chinese foot binding has always left me feeling rather queasy. But when Barry and I got to tour another lovely recreated Chinese water town with our Maui College colleagues–and many other tourists, we came across the Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum. I was curious.
This year, we got to return with our Shanghai Normal University colleagues to take another look at what I think is the most interesting part of this Chinese water town: the Wūzhèn Foot- Binding Museum.
The museum is tucked away, and you aren’t likely to discover it unless you go there looking for it or happen to find the sign in your wanderings off the main streets.
The Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum displays 825 pairs of foot-binding shoes from various places in China. The museum website notes, “Without looking at these shocking pictures and three-inch or even shorter shoes, you may never understand the laughs [my emphasis] and tears of Chinese women over the thousand years” [From: http://www.wuzhen.com.cn/wuzhen.eng/sightseeing/Footbinding_Museum.html].
It’s unlikely that many laughs were ever involved for the perhaps two billion little girls [estimates vary] whose feet were bound so they would be considered attractive enough for a good marriage.
The museum’s several large rooms showcase tiny slippers, boots, and sleeping shoes of Chinese women who had had their feet bound when they were children. Although there are guards to keep visitors from taking photographs, the “no photos” signs are in Chinese and English. The reason, said a guard, is to protect the privacy of the families who have given the shoes for display. Another tourist whose first language is neither Chinese nor English took a picture before the guards stopped him. Although I have mixed feelings about showing the photo, I asked for a copy. The photo is an example of the quality of the tiny, “beautiful” shoes you will see in the museum.
What was the process of foot-binding? According to the Wūzhèn Museum, “Starting when the child was five, the girl’s feet were broken at the arch, their toes fractured and folded over toes to heels. The broken feet were bound tightly so the feet would remain in a tight small shape. It usually took three years to remold the feet into a shape and size that many males of the time admired.”
An even more graphic description of the practice comes from Alan Bellow’s Bound by Tradition, “[T]he earliest known written records of the practice [foot binding] 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 the Chinese Communists had enough power to stop it in 1949].
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 farther than 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 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,” says Alan Bellows.
If you go to the Wūzhèn Museum, look for a pair of shoes that has a drawer built into each heel. Fragrant powder was put into the drawer so that each time the woman stepped on her heel, a puff of powder was released (likely to mask the odor of decay—ugh!).
In Bound by Tradition, Alan Bellows continues, “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” [From: www.damninteresting.com/bound-by-tradition/]
From the late 10th century until the practice was effectively banned by the Chinese Communists in 1949, an estimated 2,000,000,000 (two billion) Chinese women had their feet bound (we now say broken and mutilated) to create tiny “Golden Lotus” feet, some only three inches long!
Although I’d heard about the practice, I hadn’t know that the foot binding had impacted so many Chinese women and for so long. This means that if I were Chinese, my mom, grandmother, aunts, and my female relatives about 1, 000 years back may have had their feet bound and would have suffered their whole lives.
How did foot binding start? Although the origin of the practice is disputed, the museum notes say that foot binding began in the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing (937-75 AD) when a famous concubine danced with her feet wrapped to make them look more delicate. Small feet became synonymous with beauty.
At first, only girls from elite families in the wealthiest parts of China had their feet bound. Tiny feet were supposed to mean that the girl would never do physical work. Her husband needed to be wealthy enough to provide for her. Women were possessions. Few women could inherit wealth or hold jobs. These women “existed solely to serve their men and direct household servants while performing no labor themselves.”
The desired look was a two inch crevice in the foot that “ideally” measured 3 to 3 ½ inches from toe to heel.
The process could lead to serious infections, even gangrene–about 10% of the girls died. It was “a time of tears” for the girls, symbolic of the “painful life of women.” Women dusted their feet with fragrant powder to cover the stench of putrid flesh. Usually the result was lifetime pain, and foot binding didn’t guarantee that the women would lead a life without manual labor.
By the 17th century, Han Chinese [the majority ethnic group] women from the richest to the poorest had their feet bound although it was less prevalent among poorest families where the girls and women had to work to survive.
Chinese rulers at various times attempted to outlaw the practice. When the Manchu started their rule of China in 1644, for instance, Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet.
The Manchu women, however, wore shoes that made them wobble when they walked in imitation of the crippled gait of the “Golden Lotus” women. Such toddling was considered very sexy.
By the 19th century, 40-50% of the Chinese women had their feet bound; for the wealthiest, the figure was practically 100%, especially in the north of China.
Why did the women acquiesce to foot-binding? The Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum information explains, “In the society governed by men, women were proud of foot binding, and bound their feet to serve their husbands; there were a lot of poems praising foot-binding in Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. . .
“Her silk skirt flows like spring breeze,
Her lotus blossoms so light as if floating on autumn water.
Her shoe tips already hidden under the skirt,
She still looks around in fear that her tiny shoe embroideries/ be seen” — poem by Sa’dulla, born 1308.
Foot binding “reached its peak … in the Qing dynasty [1644-1912 + a short while in 1917), during which foot-binding was . . . canonized by Han women.
Who tried to stop foot-binding during its about 1,000 year practice? Chinese leadership at various times tried to stop the practice; some leaders didn’t encourage it.
The museum focused on one important Chinese leader who did not encourage foot binding: Zhu Yuanzhang.
From a poor family, Zhu rose to power at a time when famine, peasant revolts, and plagues swept through China. He became a peasant revolt leader, conquered Southern China, pushed the Monguls north, and became the first emperor (1368-1389) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). By most accounts a brutal, virtual dictator, Zhu established good economic policies, introduced crop rotation, had over a billion trees planted, and discouraged foot binding. His empress, Queen Ma, was a woman without bound feet. Some speculate that she may have been Muslim, and so had avoided the practice.
According to the information at the Wūzhèn Museum, Queen Ma was ridiculed by the Han Chinese for her unbound feet. And Zhu may not have been particularly concerned with the pain girls suffered since besides his wife, Queen Ma, Zhu also had 27 concubines including two Korean women. According to Wikipedia, Zhu forced ladies-in-waiting “to live in the palaces for life without freedom and behind cemented walls. He restricted the freedom of many concubines, killed several, and forced many to commit suicide. Zhu was also said to have ordered the massacre of several thousand people living in Nanjing, his capital city, after having heard one citizen talk about him without respect” [from People.com.cn]. So although the museum honors Zhu as a powerful man who didn’t support foot binding, he was generally a ruthless leader–and he didn’t stop the foot-binding practice.
One Chinese leader who did try to stop foot binding was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi. He was the first Qing emperor to be born on Chinese soil south of what is now Beijing, and the second Qing emperor to rule over China proper, from 1661 to 1722. Kangxi’s reign of 61 years makes him the longest-reigning Chinese emperor in history, and during that time foot binding was banned three times—although not successfully.
The next Chinese leader who tried to stop foot binding was Daoguang, the 6th emperor of the Qing dynasty; he reigned from 1820-1850.
Emperor Daoguang implemented various reforms to strengthen China. He tried to stop the opium trade with Britain, and he practiced personal austerity to repair China’s finances. In 1836, Doaguang banned foot binding, but like most of his other attempts at reform, it too failed.Guangxu, the ninth emperor (reigning from 1874/75–1908) of the Qing dynasty, came to “power” when he was only four years old; during his reign, the empress dowager Cixi (1835–1908) totally dominated the government. Guangxu attempted reforms including banning foot binding, (although some sources credit Cixi of symbolically banning foot binding to appease mounting European pressure to stop the practice). Although starting reforms, Guangxu was kept under house arrest for many years and mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning when he was 37–probably under the orders of Cixi . (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/324181/Guangxu
Another attempt to stop foot binding was in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, an opposition state in China from 1851 to 1864, established by Hong Xiuquan. A Christian convert who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus, Hong led an army that controlled some parts of southern China with about 30 million people. The rebel kingdom announced social reforms including a ban on foot binding.Also world pressure became an impetus for a final ban. “In 1874, 60 Christian women in Xiamen called for an end of the practice and it was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including Timothy Richard, who thought that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes. Educated Chinese began to realize that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modernising world; Social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation, since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons; and feminists attacked the practice because it caused women to suffer. At the turn of the 20th century, well-born women such as Kwan Siew-Wah (known in the West as Brigitte Kwan), a pioneering feminist, advocated for the end of foot binding. . . .
How did foot binding end? In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, though, like its predecessors, not always successfully. In Taiwan, foot binding was banned by the Japanese administration in 1915. Additionally, some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. When the Communists took power in 1949, they were able to enforce a strict prohibition on foot binding, including in isolated areas deep in the countryside where the Nationalist prohibition had been ignored. The ban remains in effect today. [From:Wikipedia: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130501182852AAgAE57>.
Now, it’s hard to understand how the families and the women themselves took great pride in their small feet. The Wūzhèn Foot Binding Museum notes say that a woman’s most precious gift to her groom was a pair of her tiny hand- embroidered shoes.
Some women whose feet were bound such as the 89-year-old grandmother of my Zejiang Forestry and Agriculture University Chinese teacher are still alive.
China has had culture, philosophy, science, music, and literature for thousands of years. Opium addiction, introduced by British to ensure a balance in trade, and foot binding, an aesthetic of Chinese beauty at the time, are two blights on their culture.
One unintentionally ironic sign in the Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum notes, “This [meaning the use of oil on the tiny shoes to make them waterproof] is a reflection of the wisdom of the Chinese ancestors.” The foot binding of the girls was actually torture, surely nothing of wisdom involved.
What troubled me the most about the Wūzhèn Foot-Binding Museum (besides the fact that two-billion girls were tortured) was that overall, the displays were meant to be admired–how tiny the women’s feet, how beautiful their embroidery, how stylish their shoes.
And how about now? Have we learned? The Chinese now, of course, don’t bind children’s feet, but think about what many of us inflict on ourselves to fit the standards of beauty today.
Such shoes are neither practical nor usually comfortable. I too wore them until I slid off my slides one time too often and tore a ligament that took three years to heal. Now many men and women get tattoos that can be quite painful. There are also piercings, implants, plastic surgery . . . At some point in our lives, most of us suffer for style. However, at least foot binding that cripples girls has stopped.
Today, children–even girls–are treasures in China. From what Barry and I have seen by living in China is that children are well-cared for, loved, and cherished. Perhaps the “one child policy” and planned parenthood make people recognize the gift they receive in the birth of each child. I wish it were so for every child in the world.
What’s wrong with people? Is anything like foot binding happening today? Although foot binding is no longer an issue in China, another practice that causes suffering and sometimes death is going on today–Female Genital Mutilation; FGM has several similarities to foot binding.
According to Wikipedia, FGM is carried out in “28 countries in western, eastern, and north-eastern Africa, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia, and in parts of Asia and the Middle East. The WHO estimates that 140 million women and girls around the world have experienced it, including 101 million in Africa.
FGM is typically carried out between four years old and puberty, although it may be conducted on younger infants and adults. It may take place in a hospital, but is usually performed without anesthesia by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor or scissors. The practice is rooted in gender inequality, cultural identity, ideas about purity, modesty, aesthetics, status and honor, and attempts to control women’s sexuality by reducing their sexual desire, thereby promoting chastity and fidelity. In communities that practice it, it is typically supported by both women and men” [From <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_mutilation>.
And children aren’t the only beings who suffer. A current photography exhibit at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center features, among others, the work of Bruna Stude. Her “Red Sea” piece grieves for the pods of pilot whales that are traditionally rounded up each summer when Faro Island Archipelago citizens (under the sovereignty of Denmark) use small motor boats to drive the whales to shore where the men knife and hook the beached whales. The sea turns red from the slaughter of whole families of these intelligent, gentle mammals that bleed to death. Traditionally, the whales have been hunted as food for these isolated islands. But now the Faro Islands enjoy a high standard of living, and –since 2008–the islanders have been warned not to consume the whale meat because of its high levels of mercury and PCB’s. So the practice involves tradition and free meat, but who wants to fee their children mercury? Last summer, 2012, in five days, Faro islanders slaughtered 467 pilot whales!
Bruna Stude says her Red Sea, “refers to all acts of atrocity that value tradition, religion or politics above life and humanity.”<http://www.brunastude.com/#!red-sea-@-macc>
Is sending its young people to war really the best way for countries to handle differences? What other practices that you know about could be changed and in doing so reduce suffering in the world today?
So wiggle your toes, take a run in the park, be thankful a woman’s worth today isn’t judged now by the smallness of her feet. Be thankful too if you weren’t born in a country that practices Female Genital Mutilation. And although it is usually a good idea to respect other cultures, speak out, be aware, and take action to stop practices that cause children and other beings to suffer needlessly. Let’s be aware. Let’s stop hurting others.
Zài Jiàn and Aloha, Renée
*Unless noted, photos by me.