torsdag 2. juni 2022

Old China: Bound Feet and Bad Smell

We don't know when Chinese women began binding their feet. It was most likely around 800-900 A.D. The curious custom had to do with marriage, with sex, with beauty - and duty. This is a chapter from my book "Midtens rike" (The Middle Kingdom, Oslo 2009).

By Torbjørn Færøvik
writer and historian

“Women carry half of the heavens”, says an old Chinese proverb.

Reality certainly was not so. China practiced a clear difference between women’s and men’s work. Originally the Chinese characters for “woman” and “mother” were almost identical. They both depicted a squatting person with crossed arms, the only difference being dots marking the breasts. A woman’s place was in the home. Women prepared the food and took care of the children. Not the least, they did the spinning, weaving and sewing. They had many children, but not all were equally wanted. To give birth to a daughter was considered bad luck. In extreme cases she was passed on to others, or sold. Only sons carried the lineage forward. Only they could perform the rituals that would bring them into contact with their ancestors. Grown women were often referred to as “she who is inside”, “she who sews”, or simply “Liu’s wife”.  It wasn’t before 1950, about 2,500 years after Confucius (right), that China got a marriage law giving men and women equal status.

There were, of course, women who stood out from the rest, women who wrote poetry, and those who became soldiers and officers – even rebels! But they were few and far between. Life for the greater majority of women simply consisted of daily chores. Whether she was a child, a sister, wife or widow she had a “superior” - and this was a man.  In one of Confucius’ classical works, The Book of Rituals, we find the three rules by which women were obliged to live. As a youth she was to obey her father and elder brothers.  As a married woman she was to obey her husband, and after his death she was to obey her sons’ commands in every way.

Ban Zhao, an educated woman who lived in the first century A.D., wrote her influential Lessons for Women. Ban was quite preoccupied with how women ought to behave and she said “…yield to others, place them [others] first and yourself last”. Otherwise “the natural balance between a man and a woman will be neglected and destroyed.” Women should choose their words with care, refrain from using vulgar language, only speak at the appropriate time and not tire others with idle talk.

The poet Fu Xuan (217 – 278 A.D.) lamented:

How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boy stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born
By her the family sets no store
When she grows up she hides in her room
Afraid to look at a man in the face.

No one cried when she leaves her home –
Sudden as clouds when the rain stops.
She bows her head and composes her face,
Her teeth are pressed on her red lips:
She bows and kneels countless times.
She must humble herself even to the servants.
His love is distant as the stars in Heaven,
Yet the sunflower bends towards the sun.
Their hearts are more sun-red than water and fire –
A hundred evils are heaped upon her.
Her face will follow the years’ changes:
Her lord will find new pleasures.

Polygamy became an accepted practice among the upper classes at an early stage in time. Successful men didn’t just have a knack for financial affairs, but they also had the right to have several wives and mistresses.  The China of days bygone was not alone in this practice, but the scars it left were many and deep.

Buddhism started gaining a foothold among the Chinese during the time of Fu Xuan. Now women received more freedom, although equal status was never permitted by the Buddhists. Now they were given admission to the holy places. They were allowed to become nuns and established their own convents. They were allowed to teach and to speak to audiences. For women who felt oppressed, the convent – in some instances – became their salvation. That’s where they received privileges and an education. It was during Buddhism’s flourishing period in the 700’s A.D. that women seemingly became especially active. Murals from that period of time depict women in activities such as dancing, riding, and playing the sitar and the flute. They become administrators and one, Wu Zetian, an empress.

“The Three Inch Long Golden Lily”
We don’t know when women began binding their feet. It was most likely around 800–900 A.D. Female dancers had for a long time been an important feature at the emperor’s court and small feet were highly prized. An emperor in the Song Dynasty became, according to the legend, fascinated with a concubine who had unusually small feet. When she danced he got the impression that she skimmed on top of golden lilies.

Women with bound feet were not able to dance. Regardless, their feet should be small and by binding them they became even smaller. This practice spread from the emperor’s court to the nobility, landowners and the official class, and finally to the people.

“For more than one thousand years Chinese women and men aimed for an ideal that became known as ‘the three inch long golden lily’, or ‘the golden lotus’, writes Beverley Jackson in her beautiful, but upsetting book, Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years Of An Erotic Tradition. “The driving force behind this wish was complex. It had to do with marriage, it had to do with sex, it had to do with beauty, and it had to do with duty.” 

To get good results the girls had to get an early start. Age five, six or seven was considered ideal. At that age the feet were pliable and the right size. But in some instances foot binding started at age three or four, which was far too early. At that age the feet were too weak and soft. To bind the feet too late was not good either, as stiff, strong feet were not easily shaped.

Many parents made a family festivity out of the footbinding. Relatives, especially females, came from near and far to attend the event. Distances could be great, but a trip of several days with a team of oxen was no hindrance. The women were not reluctant to give their advice either, even though they had gone through the same painful ordeal and knew what the poor girl was about to experience. There were so many things to consider, not least the timing of the binding. Everybody kept an eye on the calendar. The 24th day of the eight month was considered especially favorable since that was when a much admired goddess, The Girl with the Small Feet, was born. The 19th day in the second month was also regarded as a lucky day, again because of another goddess’ birthday. Guan Yin was worshipped as the Goddess of Mercy, she heard everybody’s cries - the children’s in particular. If any of those days was inconvenient for doing the footbinding another time would be chosen, preferably a holiday when many family members would be together. It was common practice to seek the advice of an astrologer or fortune teller to pinpoint the lucky time.

The tiny shoes the girl was going to use were made at home. The mother, grandmother or other female family members took measurements, sewed, embroidered and glued. The preferred color was red since it was the color of good fortune. Pink and purple were also commonly used. A bustling external industry emerged to supply these home productions. Millions of households were in need of silk, felt and brocades, sewing needles and thread. Traveling salesmen, alerting their clients by whistling or ringing small bells, walked from house to house to sell their wares. Once in a while outside help was needed to make the curved wooden soles that were finished by covering them with felt or other fabrics. Prior to the footbinding the shoes were placed on an altar and prayed for. If the footbinding took place on the birthday of the Girl with the Small Feet, the parents saw to it that a her statue was placed on the altar. Other times it felt natural to raise their eyes to Guan Yin, who so well could hear their child’s cry.

To make the goddesses happy they were offered food, preferably steamed buns filled with red beans. The Chinese call them jiaozi.  Because they are so soft, the parents thought they would be suitable for a day such as this. This offering was not made less important by the fact that jiao meant “foot”. The little girl also got to taste, and when the last bun had been consumed, the time had come.

To soften the tiny feet they were first soaked in warm water and to obtain optimal results, herbs and other healing ingredients were added to the water. Many families had their own secret recipes that had been passed down for generations. In China where spices and herbs were abundant there were infinite possibilities. Pharmacists could also contribute with their advice. Sometimes urine or boiled monkey bones was added to the water, tells Beverley Jackson. In parts of the Shaanxi Province the soaking process would take on a dramatic character when the stomach of a lamb was cut open and the girl was forced to stick her feet into the lamb’s stomach - while the lamb still was alive: “The feet had to be inside the lamb for a period of two hours, removed and quickly bound, without being washed. In the Jiangxi Province a live hen was sometimes used in the same manner.”

The binding itself was a long and arduous process. It was frequently carried out by someone other than the mother, who often would give in when the daughter started crying too loud. Among the women in the village there were several who excelled in the art of foot binding. The worst that could happen was if the binding was performed by the mother-in-law. She showed no mercy, preoccupied as she was with her son’s  welfare. The footbinder needed a bandage, preferably 10 feet long and 2 inches wide (3 meters long and 5 centimeters wide). The bandage was first dipped in warm water, then with the proper technique it was expertly wound around the foot so that the big toe was bent up and the other four toes bent down until they were hidden by the sole of the foot. To make the feet as small as possible it wasn’t at all uncommon to put leather, glass, porcelain and metal between the skin and the bandage. When the bandage dried, it would help tighten it that much more. Finally the bandage was stitched together.

After the girl had put on her small shoes she was forced to take her first steps, which was very important to maintain the circulation in the legs.

Oh, that first night!  It was heavily laden with screams and cries. Nobody could sleep. If she kept the family awake, the little girl might even be beaten up. Villages where several small girls had their feet bound on the same day truly became a vale of tears.

Lasting pain and lasting foul odor
The foot binding process usually took place over a two-year time period. The bandages had to be opened constantly, disposed of and replaced with a tighter one. Each time the feet had to be washed, soaked and cleansed. Skin and flesh that had rotted were removed and the nails were trimmed. The perfect female foot should look like a lotus bud. The Chinese had long been attracted to the lotus. Poets paid homage to the lotus in their poems, and for Buddhists and Taoists it was sacred. 

Even though having bound feet gradually became a habit, many women endured a lifetime of excruciating, permanent pain. Some women died as a result of infection, others were always ailing with foul smelling feet.  Squatting to relieve themselves became a painful ordeal for many, and older women had a tendency to fall, breaking hips and legs. Others became so crippled that they had problems performing their daily chores in the home, such as cooking and taking care of the children. The walk to fetch water at the well could indeed be a trial and to walk greater distances than that was an impossibility. Since a woman’s place was in the home, part of the purpose of foot binding had therefore been attained. This point of view was especially emphasized by author Zhu Xi (1130-1200) who regarded footbinding as a practical initiative to fulfill the Confucian view of women – that men and women had different tasks in life and that the woman was obliged to obey her husband.

The sexual advantages were just as important, because the feet, not the sexual organs, became the woman’s foremost erogenous zone. When a father looked for a suitable wife for his son he started by scrutinizing women’s feet. And for men visiting brothels there was one attribute they looked for in a woman that was more important than all others:  the feet!  It was said that women with bound feet developed a more “fortune bringing” sex anatomy. Because of their cautious gait they were forced to tighten their abdomen so that the vagina – “the jade gate” – became tighter than normal. The sensation experienced by the man’s “jade staff” therefore became commensurately greater.

The fact that women seldom or never showed their feet became another important reason for men’s intense fascination. Women washed and cared for their feet in deepest secrecy.  Respectable women even wore shoes or slippers while sleeping at night. Only prostitutes sank so low as to remove their shoes and bandages to display their feet – for money!

These were great times for the voyeurs. One of them related:  “One day I stayed at my friend’s house. From there I spied a woman who lived next door. She was about thirty or forty years of age. She sat by the sunny window while removing her bandages. Before long both of her feet were naked. She viewed them from various angles and then massaged them from heel to toe as if she occupied herself with some kind of toy.  After a while she slowly and carefully wound the bandages back on, and finally she put on a pair of red shoes. Very carefully she started walking on the floor while she admired her feet in deep concentration. One hour later I went back to the peephole. To my surprise the woman had already removed her bandage for the second time… My friend told me that this woman used to remove her bandages and gaze at her feet at least ten times a day. He had become used to it.”

Men who loved bound feet were referred to as “lotus lovers”: “The eye rejoiced in the tiny footstep and in the undulating motion of the buttocks which it caused; the ear thrilled to the whispered walk, while the nose inhaled a fragrant aroma from the perfumed sole and delighted in smelling the bared flesh at closer range. The ways of grasping the foot in one’s palms were both profuse and varied; ascending the heights of ecstasy the lover transferred the foot from palm to mouth.” As an added element to this foot play the men would stick almonds or seeds between the woman’s toes, lick the toes and eat the treats. Some men also found pleasure in drinking water or wine from the lotus shoes, while others went as far as to drinking the water that the bound feet had been washed in.

The “lotus gait” that women with bound feet developed could be extra arousing if small bells were sewn into the lotus shoes, thus men would get an audible reminder of the presence of women for every step the women took. Later on rich Chinese attached small pieces of jade to women’s dresses and skirts. The melodic ring from the jade pieces sounded like beautiful music, and women would more than ever emphasize “gliding’ slowly and rhythmically along.

“If you love your daughter you won’t take foot binding lightly”
In the 1200’s China was occupied by the Mongols (Genghis Khan, below). Free and nomadic as they were it wouldn’t enter their minds to bind their own women’s feet. What the Chinese did was not their concern. Perhaps, as conquerors, they were too few to concern themselves with this. Besides, could it be to their disadvantage that half the population was crippled? The more Chinese cripples there were - the less resistance. During the Mongols’ reign the practice of footbinding spread to other layers of society, the farmers even started buying bandages and sewing thread for their daughters.

In 1368 the Chinese again became rulers of their own country. Up until that time the woman’s ideal foot size had been four inches long, but now it had to be even smaller, only three inches. A new adage swept over the country: “If you love your son you won’t take his education lightly. If you love your daughter you won’t take footbinding lightly.” Not only the feet, but also “the accessories” such as the bandages, socks and not least the shoes, became objects for intense worship. Poets wrote with newfound passion, and beauty contests were held for women with bound feet. Thousands of charged up men flocked in to the annual contest in Datong, a city in the Shanxi Province. “Women of all ages and from all classes, attractive and unattractive, participated side by side. Their feet, their most obscured body part, were now displayed, and all who came to look were allowed to touch and judge the tiny feet.”(9) Similar contests were held in several other cities.

Prostitution flourished. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) female relatives of male law violators were forced into prostitution provided that they had bound feet. The girls with the bound feet were educated in song, dance and the art of seduction in Yangzhou, a city by the Yangtze River. As soon as they were sexually mature they were sold to the nearest brothel. As one visitor noted: “Once they are thirteen or fourteen years of age they are ready.”

Emperor Zhengde who ruled from 1505 to 1521 also was lured to Yangzhou. Zhengde was notorious for his enormous sexual appetite and the sight of the city’s countless brothels, filled to the brim with women with bound feet made him uncontrollable. While eunuchs took over the running of the country, Zhengde fulfilled himself in his specially built love nest. In anticipation of intensifying the experience he invited musicians and Daoist monks who understood love’s refined art. Zhengde only lived until the age of thirty. 

In the 1600’s an author, Liu Xian, stated the reasons for foot binding in this manner:

1. If a woman doesn’t have bound feet people will say that she looks more like a man. They will laugh at her, hurl abuse at her, and the parents will feel ashamed.

2. Women are like flowers or willows. They should be soft, light and graceful. It is therefore important to have bound feet. Only bound feet will enable them to walk with short and light steps, while simultaneously swaying from side to side just as the willow in a cool breeze. People praise such things. On the contrary, a woman without bound feet trudges from house to house with heavy steps. It is therefore not so strange that she gets verbal abuse!

3. A man who comes from an affluent family will not marry a woman with big, unbound feet. A woman is chosen because of her perfect feet. If, after the wedding, it is discovered that the woman’s feet are larger than expected, she would give her husband, mother-in-law and her sisters-in-law great sorrow. 

4. A woman with big feet must do heavy work. She will not be carried in a sedan chair when she goes to town. She doesn’t wear red clothes, nor does she get to eat the best food. Instead she has to trudge barefoot through the streets. She gets wet when it rains and sunburned when the sun shines. If she refuses to do all the housework she will be called spoiled and lazy. To avoid this misfortune the parents choose to bind their daughters’ feet.

5. There are women with unbound feet who don’t do heavy work. They are transported in sedan chairs while they continually try to get men’s attention. Even if they appear beautiful they are common and indecent. If a decent woman has unbound feet it is difficult to distinguish her from the indecent.

6. Women are like gold, like jewelry. They should stay in the home. Without bound feet they can go here and there with unsuitable men. Women like that get a bad reputation. Jewelry with serious flaws always gets discarded.

7. Parents think of the long range. They know that a woman with small feet is attractive and that she can demand a large dowry.

Around that time China was frequently threatened by warlike horsemen from the north. How could they be stopped?  An intellectual, Qu Sijiu, meant to know the answer: give them the most seductive women with bound feet and the attacks will cease!  “The reason that these barbarians so easily leave their territories and travel over long distances to invade us is that there are no beautiful women in the northern regions. If we wish to control these barbarians we should make sure that their men will be lured into a trap and seduced by feminine charm. We should teach them foot binding and convince them to imitate the way we dress. They will most certainly value women with willow figures and lotus walk, and with a delicate, captivating posture.  Barbarians who are seduced by such women will after a while lose their ugly and gruesome disposition.”

Qu must have spoken for deaf ears because The Middle Kingdom was again conquered from the north in 1644, this time by the Manchus. They didn’t practice footbinding either, so the first Manchu emperor went straight to the point and banned the practice. Families that broke this ban were threatened with severe punishment. But it was not easy to adhere to this new rule. The Han Chinese hated their new rulers, and as a form of national protest the custom of footbinding became more widespread than ever. The next Manchu emperor realized that the practice was so ingrained that the ban was of no use. The ban was therefore abolished and for the next 200 years enthusiastic foot binders across the whole country were given the green light.

Entranced men sat under willow trees and in pavilions writing poems such as this one, praising women with bound feet:

Mother, mother, she is the one I want to marry
Her high flower-embroidered shoes are unparalleled
Penniless am I indeed
But I will sell all I have to get her
Her white painted face
Is more beautiful than a peach’s
Her two golden lotus
Fit perfectly within my hands
I will transport you home as my bride
In a golden sedan chair

Five out of Ten
Author William Rossi has estimated that forty to fifty percent of women bound their feet in the 1800’s. But, he adds that among the upper classes the participation was “nearly one hundred percent”. Authors began to publish books about footbinding - many of which had unmistakably pornographic contents - with advice and direction as to how men best could “play” with the feet. The disfigured foot with the narrow cleft could evidently be used for so much. In the book Pagoda Shadows, published in 1890, missionary Adele Fielde writes about her experiences from the Shantou area on China’s southern coast: “Near the coast, even in farmsteads and among the most indigent, every woman has bound feet. It is not a voucher for respectability, for the vilest are often boundfooted. Neither is it a sign of wealth, for in those places where the custom prevails, the poorest follow it. Taking all China together, perhaps nine-tenths of the women have bound feet.”

Some later told of their experiences:

Born into an old-fashioned family in Pingxi, I was inflicted with the pain of footbinding when I was seven years old … It was in the first lunar month in my seventh year that my ears were pierced and fitted with gold earrings. I was told that a girl had to suffer twice, through ear piercing and footbinding. Binding started in the second lunar month; mother consulted references in order to select an auspicious day for it.  I wept and hid in a neighbor’s home, but mother found me, scolded me, and dragged me home.  She shut the bedroom door, boiled water, and from a box withdrew binding, shoes, knife, needle, and thread. I begged her for a one-day postponement, but mother refused.

“Today is your lucky day”, she said. “If bound today they will never hurt; if bound tomorrow, they will.” 

She washed and placed alum on my feet and cut the toenails. She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten feet long and two inches wide, doing the right foot first and then the left. She finished binding and ordered me to walk, but when I did the pain proved unbearable.

That night, mother wouldn’t let me to remove the shoes. My feet felt on fire and I couldn’t sleep; mother struck me for crying. On the following days I tried to hide but was forced to walk. Mother hit me on my hands and feet for resisting. Beatings and curses were my lot for covertly loosening the wrappings. The feet were washed and rebound after three or four days, with alum added. After several months, all toes but the big one were pressed against the inner surface. Whenever I ate fish or freshly killed meat, my feet would swell, and the pus would drip. Mother criticized me for placing pressure on the heel in walking, saying that my feet never assume a pretty shape ... If I mistakenly punctured a sore, the blood gushed like a stream. My somewhat fleshy big toes were bound with small pieces of cloth and forced upwards, to assume a new moon shape.

Every two weeks, I changed to new shoes. Each new pair was one-to-two-tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one. The shoes were unyielding and it took pressure to get into them. Tough I wanted to sit passively by the k'ang (bed), mother forced me to move around. After having changing more than ten pairs of shoes, my feet were reduced to a little over four inches. I had been binding for a month when my younger sister started; when no one was around, we would weep together.  In summer the feet smelled offensively because of pus and blood; in winter, my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation … Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars; no outsider would ever have believed that they belonged to a human being.  It took me two years to achieve the desired three-inch model.

Another woman told of having grown up in a district where the women competed about the smallest and most beautiful lotus feet. Her mother had bound her feet the year she turned six, but the result wasn’t good enough so everybody laughed at her.

I started binding my own feet when I was nine years old. Every time I made a new pair of shoes they became a size smaller. At age eleven I had small, thin and curved feet about four and a half inches long. One day we went away to celebrate my maternal grandmother’s birthday and there were two girls about my age among the guests … Their feet were so small, smaller than hands, and they were covered in purple, embroidered shoes. Everybody admired them. My uncle turned to me, laughing: “Look at their feet! How small and fine they are! That demands respect! And look at yours, so big and fat!  Who would take it upon themselves to try to marry you off?”

All the guests turned and stared at my feet and laughed. I froze, as if someone had thrown a bucket of icy water over my head and was so ashamed that I started crying. I only wished that I could have made my feet smaller right on the spot. At that moment I decided to bind them even tighter, regardless of how painful it would be.

That night, after I had loosened the bindings, I tore my scarf into strips and sewed them together to make them longer. I pressed the four toes as far as possible against the sole of the foot, wound the bandage around the foot once, bending the foot by pulling the bandage back over the heel. After having wound the bandage around the foot four times I tucked the end under the sole of the foot and put on the shoes. When I lay down in bed I could feel my feet swell, burn, and hurt like hell. I writhed in agony, but was fully determined not to loosen the bandage even if I were to die from the pain. Once in a while it felt unbearable and I cried. When I finally fell asleep I dreamed of feet that were three inches long. The next day I had to support myself against the wall to walk … Ten days later the shoes were roomier and I knew that my feet were getting smaller and smaller. Next evening I made myself a new pair of shoes. I measured them. Three inches and eight! They had shrunk nearly one inch. What an achievement that was in just the course of half a month! Better than I had expected …

Five days later I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my foot. The binding was so intolerable that my whole body shook. I said to myself that if I was afraid of pain then all the efforts and suffering of the last month would have been in vain. My courage returned and I bound my feet even tighter. After a while the pain was so bad that my feet became numb. Little by little all my small toes, flat and small like butter beans, were pressed into the soles of my feet. The big toes nearly touched the heels. The fold in the instep also became deeper, almost an inch deep. The big toe became more pointed, the heel straighter, and the sole of the foot arched nicely.

After thirty days of binding my feet had shrunk to two inches and nine. I walked quite unsteadily because my feet had become so small. One day my uncle came to visit and said: “I’ll chop your feet off so that you won’t need to bind them anymore”. I think he said that because he was afraid I would bind them too hard. Some time later I returned to grandmother’s house. People noticed my small feet and thought I had put on fake dancing shoes, but when they looked closer they realized the shoes were real, and admired me with reverence.

Manchu men were also fascinated by the Han-women’s small feet and when the Manchuwomen noticed that, some of them started using high-heeled shoes. Their gait could to some degree resemble that of women with bound feet. Even Cixi, the notorious dowager empress who reigned during the last year of Manchu power, could not resist temptation. Since Cixi was small in stature the high heeled shoes did wonders. In South China, just as in other parts of the country, there were various groups of people who did not practice foot binding. The hard-working Hakka people lived in the south. Many Hakka men had left the area to seek their fortune in other countries. Understandably, it was important that women who were left behind had normal and healthy feet to survive.

Other Chinese people spent their lives on houseboats on the rivers or in small boats along the coast. Bound feet were impractical under those conditions. Neither was the custom of foot binding very common among the minority nationalities that China has so many of. Footbinding was first and foremost a tradition among the Han people’s women. There were also a small number of vain men who chose to bind their feet. They tiptoed across theater stages as male actors, others stood on street corners working as prostitutes. Male brothels appeared both in Shanghai and Beijing, and small, bound feet were considered a requirement for success.

“Down with the Qing Dynasty!  Burn the Lotus Shoes!” 
The old China started cracking at the seams towards the last half of the 1800’s. Western gunboats sailed up the Yangtze River and several of the largest cities became occupied by the British, Germans and others. Huge farmers’ rebellions became epidemic throughout the country, and young republicans climbed up on the barricades: “Down with the Qing Dynasty!” – “Drive the foreigners out!” – “Burn the lotus shoes!”

The slogans incited many women, also Qiu Jin. China’s first well known female activist was born in Xiamen, a coastal town south of Shanghai, in 1875. The town was buzzing with foreigners and little Jin absorbed all she saw and heard.  Her father, a well educated man, did the same. One day he said: “Little Jin, now we regret bitterly that we bound your feet. But don’t let that stop you! Be free, do like the western women and participate in as much as possible.” So his daughter learnt the sword dance. And after that she took up horseback riding.

Whenever she rode along the main street in Xiamen, men would stop, totally paralyzed by this sight that was so contrary to nature. Strangely enough, she did marry, but her marriage was not successful.  In 1904 she sold all her belongings, left husband and children and went to Japan. Many Chinese who were hostile to the emperor lived in exile in Japan. After two years in Japan she returned home, fully determined to overthrow the emperor’s rule once and for all. She and other footbound women planned to march to the big city of Hangzhou. She presumed that thousands of women would join and that the city would fall. But the police had other plans, and on July 15, 1907 she was arrested and beheaded.

Women with bound feet represented a special challenge for the missionaries. Protestants and Catholics alike thought footbinding a barbaric practice. The letters they sent home weren’t lacking in shocking descriptions. As guests in a foreign country they still chose to keep a low profile. But in many orphanages run by missions they were passive witnesses to Chinese women binding their daughters’ feet. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s that there was a change of atmosphere. There were more outside influences and informed Chinese began demanding a change. In Guangzhou, a city in the south, Kang Youwei founded China’s first anti footbinding association. Kang was preoccupied with Chinese people’s health. They had to be healthy and strong to compete with other people and countries. “The foreigners laugh at us and criticize us for being barbarians,” he wrote in a letter to the Dowager Empress. “How can we engage ourselves in battle when we impair ourselves in this manner?”

Shanghai and other large cities were under the sign of industrialization. Factories were in need workers – also women.  But women with bound feet were useless. They weren’t of much use even in the countryside. Kang complained that half of the population was in fact crippled. He requested the Dowager Empress (left) to act quickly for the good of “the Chinese race and the country’s future”. The action against foot binding was supported by many western women who lived in China. Alicia Little, a British woman, virtually started a crusade against the horrible custom. Alicia and her husband, Archibald Little, came to China in 1885 to do business and to explore China’s inner areas. Alicia couldn’t help but notice all the women with bound feet on her trips up and down the Yangtze River. They were toddling back and forth along the riverside, all seemingly helpless.

In 1895 she called together about ten women and founded The Natural Foot Society. Alicia was elected president and already in that first meeting did the women adopt a program and several appeals. One of the appeals was composed to the Dowager Empress, others to generals and the governors of the provinces.  Alicia arranged for free passage on the Yangtze and held one fiery appeal after the other. “Fellow sisters!” she cried. “You have been suffering for a thousand years - a thousand years is enough. Tear your bindings off, give freedom back to your feet.  And if you know of another fellow sister, a five year old girl, who at this moment is crying because somebody has decided to bind her feet – hurry home to her!  Help her!”

The same scene repeated itself everywhere. People flocked together and women were queuing up to sign Alicia’s petition to the authorities. In Hanyang, which today is a part of the big city Wuhan, she rented the city’s largest meeting hall. The hall was filled to capacity with women of all ages. Alicia asked all the women with bound feet to rise – and everybody stood up. “Well, I can’t give you your feet back. But if you continue to stand up, physically and spiritually, you will change China.”

Early in the 1900’s when the Qing Dynasty was nearing its end, the Dowager Empress, Cixi, received several delegations of foreign women in audience. Respectfully, but firmly, the women gave their opinion on foot binding. As a Manchurian the Dowager Empress had natural feet, but yet she disliked any foreign interference, also in this matter.

On one occasion she gave an audience to a delegation of both Chinese and foreign women. A Chinese minister’s wife had the word and said: “Chinese women’s bound feet make us the laughing stock of the world.” By then Cixi had heard enough: “I have heard that foreigners have a custom that is not above reproach, and now, since there are no outsiders here, I should like to see what the foreign ladies use in binding their waists.” One woman obeyed immediately, opened the buttons and lifted her dress.  “It is truly pathetic to see what foreign women have to endure,” replied Cixi. “They are bound up with steel bars until they can scarcely breathe. Pitiable! Pitiable!”

Chinese women inspired by Alicia Little established their own anti-footbinding association. And anti-foot binders invited people to their information meetings in cities small and large. During these meetings the women with bound feet were ordered to show their feet. Women with natural feet were also called up on stage to show theirs, so that those present should see the distinct difference. Many curious people, mostly men, showed up at these meetings. The women with bound feet perceived their presence humiliating. Some of them later committed suicide.

Victory for the revolution!  Freedom for the feet!
The struggle was crowned with victory in 1902. The Dowager Empress issued a decree instructing the informed elite to help put an end to the custom of footbinding. The Qing Dynasty fell nine years later and the country became a republic. Under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan), China’s first president, the new government passed a resolution prohibiting the custom of footbinding. If anyone abused this law either by refusing to remove the bindings or by binding others’ feet, they were threatened with fines. Likewise, a person who collaborated with the government by confiscating and delivering lotus shoes to them, were tempted with rewards.

But the law of indolence proved to be far stronger. The Chinese countryside was immense and difficult to keep an eye on and the new government very soon had more than enough with defending itself against enemies close by and afar. Meanwhile a lot of women continued binding feet just as before.

In 1928 Chang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi) Chinese Nationalist government launched a campaign against the practice. Jiang was married to the wealthy and sophisticated Song Meiling. Not only did she have healthy, natural feet, but she was also outstandingly beautiful. Song took on the leadership for the campaign. Again footbinding became prohibited, and women who had already bound their feet once more were encouraged to take off their bandages. The latter was easier said than done, because walking without the support of bindings contributed to further ailments. Only the women who had practiced the so-called light binding could adopt the challenge without too much torment.

Footbinding once more became prohibited when the communists came to power in 1949.  Chairman Mao (right) regarded the custom as a reprehensible feudal tradition: “When we are starting a revolution we cannot act like women with bound feet!” Mao was a busy man and he wanted to put all the people to work. But since the bitter fact was that millions of women barely could walk, he had to reduce his demands. Women were brought to the foreground at noisy meetings as examples of the tyranny of the past. Healthy women with round cheeks and healthy feet now became the new ideal. Filmmaker Yang Yeqing wanted to make a motion picture about footbinding as late as 1995, but she had difficulty in getting some of the women with bound feet to talk. They were ashamed, and just waved her away.

Some journalists visited the village of Liuyicun in the Yunnan Province in the spring of 2007. Several women with bound feet sat outside the temple chatting with one another. The women were mostly between the ages of sixty and eighty. One was the seventy-nine year old Wang Lifen. She was seven years old when her mother said:  “Little Flower, now we’re going to bind your feet!” No sooner was it said than done, and “Little Flower” was maimed for life. Eighty-six year old Zhou Guizhen had her feet bound when she was five. “It seemed natural.  Everybody had their feet bound at that time. If we didn’t, we would risk being married off to a tribesman in the jungle!” Yunnan was, then as now, populated with several ethnic minorities.  The Han people regarded them as barbarians. There was no worse fate than being married off to a “tribesman”.

The “foot inspectors” visited Liuyicun for several years after Mao came to power. Families who continued the practice of binding their girls’ feet risked to be fined. The women – young and old alike – used to hide their feet in large, regular shoes prior to each inspection, so that the inspectors would not suspect anything.  At the turn of the century there were three hundred women with bound feet in Liuyicun. Since then many have died, and a thousand-year tradition will soon be buried for good.


Jackson, Beverley: Splendid Slippers, A Thousand Years of An Erotic Tradition, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California 1997
Levy, Howard S.: The Lotus Lovers,: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China, Prometheus, Buffalo, New York 1993
Lim, Louisa: "Painful Memories for China's Footbinding Survivors", NPR, June 3, 2007
Little, Mrs. Archibald (Alicia): The Land of the Blue Gown, R. Fisher Unwin, London 1908
Rossi, William A.: The Sex Life of the Foot and the Shoe, Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida, 1993
Wang Ping: Aching for Beauty, Footbinding in China, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2000

Author's note: This is a chapter of my  book The Middle Kingdom, published by Cappelen Damm, Oslo, Norway 2009. All rights reserved.

Translated from Norwegian by Anne Faerovik