Foot binding was the ancient Chinese practice of breaking, bending, and wrapping a girl’s feet to shrink and control their size. One of the earliest stories associated with foot binding was during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) when an unnamed emperor became infatuated with a concubine named Daji. This concubine had clubfoot so she asked the emperor to impose foot binding on the ladies in the palace so that hers would look normal. A dancer in the court of a Tang Dynasty emperor also bound her feet to make them more attractive. This story was said to be the most feasible origin of foot binding. Foot-binding became the custom at the court of Chi during 500 AD according to the Bible Timeline Poster with World History.
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The practice was mentioned once again during the domination of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when tenth-century dancers bound their feet to make them look beautiful. The court ladies copied this practice. It later became fashionable among ladies of the upper class as seen in the tomb of Lady Huang whose tiny-than-normal feet were wrapped tightly in cloth. The popularity of the practice reached its height during the Ming Dynasty. It was during this period that the feet were shrunk by forcibly bending them downward. Over the years, the practice was adopted by lower-class women except by the Hakka minority, working peasants, and non-Han Manchu ladies.
An early Qing Dynasty emperor issued a ban on foot binding. It turned out to be so unpopular that a later Emperor Qing emperor had it revoked. An official ban on the practice arrived in 1911, but some girls in rural areas continued to have their feet bound until the practice declined and was completely abandoned in the 20th century.
Reasons for Foot Binding
The Han Chinese associated this practice with wealth as girls with bound feet usually belonged to the upper class who did not need to work in the fields and whose value in the marriage market were higher because of their family’s affluence. This, however, was not necessarily true for all regions in China as poorer girls, despite their bound feet, were also exploited as laborers in cottage industries.
The practice was also a symbol of feminine beauty and sexuality as some men considered women with smaller feet more attractive than those with normal ones. Large and normal-sized feet were associated with mobility and loose morals (women with normal-sized feet can go out of the house and mingle with men), while women with smaller feet were considered pure and chaste since they were bound inside the house. Other Chinese men also associated the gait, as well as the appearance and smell of bound feet with sexuality.
Picture By Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection – Library of CongressCatalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/2001705601Image download: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3b20000/3b27000/3b27200/3b27200r.jpgOriginal url: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b27200, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31437956
Tierney, Helen. Women’s Studies Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Smith, Bonnie G., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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