Demeaning cultures: Chinese foot binding

chinese foot binding 2

When I look at the world we live in today, of the things I appreciate most is the fact that women are more independent and empowered; unlike in past eras where a woman’s worth was solely determined by the type of man she could attract.

Sometimes when I look at some cultural practices I totally fail to see their relevance, because if one was to look at the reasons why such practices are carried out, it’s mainly to please men; foot binding for instance.

It’s a Chinese practice that was outlawed around 1912. According to Wikipedia, foot binding, also known as ‘Lotus feet’ is the custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls between ages 4 and 9 to prevent further growth. I wasn’t aware of such a practice until yesterday, when on CNN I saw this elderly woman, who’s one of the few remaining survivors of the out-dated practice.

Her toes were folded in what appeared to be a deformity and as she talked to CNN correspondent, Kristie Lu Stout, she told her it was an ancient tradition practiced by Chinese women and one of the reasons it was encouraged was because it ensured women would always be dependent on their husbands.

Curious, I went online to find out more about foot binding, and I must admit, I cringed as I read in-depth accounts of how the practice was carried out: first each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot.

Cotton bandages were prepared by soaking them into the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.

The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken down. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the inside of the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot.

At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath. The girl’s broken feet required a great deal of regular care and attention.

The most common problem with bound feet was infection. Despite the regular care, toenails would in-grow becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes, for this reason, the girl’s toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether.

The tightness of the binding meant that the circulation was cut off, and as a result injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal and were likely to worsen gradually leading to infected toes and rotting flesh. If the infection got to the bones, they would soften and eventually some toes would fall off. This, however, was seen as a benefit because the feet could be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were fleshier would have shards of glass or sharp tiles inserted to deliberately cause injury.

Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from foot-binding, and a surviving girl was more at risk of health problems as she grew older. Older women on the other hand were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls since they could not balance securely on their feet and were unable to rise from sitting positions.

In Chinese culture, bound feet were considered erotic and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet.

pair of red lotus

Sadly, men preferred never to see a woman’s unbound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny three-inch ‘lotus shoes’ and wrappings. They understood that the symbolic erotic fantasy of bound feet didn’t correspond to its unpleasant physical reality. The fact that the bound feet were concealed from men’s eyes was considered sexually appealing, because an uncovered foot would also give foul odour as various microorganisms would colonize the unwashable folds.

A feature of a woman with bound feet was the limitation of her mobility, and therefore her inability to take part in politics and an active social life. Bound feet rendered women dependent on men and became an alluring symbol of chastity and male ownership, since a woman was largely restricted to her home and couldn’t venture far without an escort.

chinese foot binding

As I read this all I saw was excruciating pain, and I kept asking, was it really worth it? The Chinese women went through intense pain and sometimes succumbing to the resulting diseases just to fulfil some male fantasy. What did they gain from having their feet bound? In my opinion, nothing really! In any case, it robbed them off their freedom, making them just property, that men could lay claim to.

They were left taking care of self-inflicted deformities, and all for what? Just to impress men, who didn’t even want to see their bound feet, because they knew behind the beautiful lotus façades lay smelly wounds and deformed feet. Honestly, I’m so glad the practice was outlawed, because women shouldn’t live at the mercy of men.

When I think of such practices, I feel girls/women should be educated; because I have a feeling such demeaning practices would be mainly attributed to illiteracy on their part. It’s the only sound reason why loving mothers would put their daughters through such agonizing pain just so they could be eligible for marriage.

16 thoughts on “Demeaning cultures: Chinese foot binding

  1. threekidsandi

    I think long ago I read that binding the feet of your daughter was a way to get her noticed and hopefully into the royal court, where her predicted influence and wealth could secure more positions at court and also spread wealth back from there to the family and lift them from poverty. I think it was seen as a way to secure your daughter’s future.
    It reminds me of FGM.

    1. alygeorges Post author

      Yes, foot binding was done with the aim of helping a daughter attract a wealthy suitor. I only feel the price they paid was too high. Most of the girls who had their feet bound were from rich families. Girls from poor families couldn’t afford to have their feet bound because they needed to work to earn a living, so they ended up marrying poor men.
      When I read about this practice, I also thought of FGM because even though the two practices are different, they are carried out for similar reasons.
      The problem is that while foot binding is an outlawed practice, FGM is still practiced in various parts of the world. I hope it gets outlawed too. Girls don’t need to go through so much pain to get themselves good men.

  2. live2laugh4love

    This made me sick to my stomache to read, seriously. I could barely read the entire post because it is so horrible. This is fantastic information and I am so happy it is no longer practiced. I write some on Domestic Violence, my sister was in a very violent marriage. I would like to repost this on my page. 😀

    1. alygeorges Post author

      After reading about the practice I felt like I had just watched a horror movie. It’s painful and hard to imagine how those women lived. They were born healthy but died with self-inflicted deformities that were completely unnecessary.
      I’m really happy your sister found her independence, and thank you for the reblog. 🙂

  3. live2laugh4love

    Reblogged this on Live Laugh Love and commented:
    Today is Independence Day. It is also my sisters Independence Day from her abusive marriage. There are so many women through history that have lived in abusive relationships and marriages. We should not shy away or close the door on Domestic Violence, it is real. Let’s help them find their Independence Day!

    1. alygeorges Post author

      Thank you so much for the reblog. I’m glad your sister got liberated from her abusive marriage. Many people endure abusive relationships because sometimes they are afraid of breaking free for various personal reasons; but as you say, we shouldn’t shy away from the issue. Domestic violence is real and we need to find victims find their independence.

      1. live2laugh4love

        It was my pleasure to share your piece. When there is a message I want to get it out there.
        8 years free as of the 4th. You are so right many many people suffer. There is not enough being said about Domestic Violence, it makes people uncomfortable. Thanks again for the share. 😀

    1. alygeorges Post author

      Yeah, it is sad women went through that in real life and the worst part is that later, when the practice was already outlawed, the same men they hoped to impress ended up abandoning them for the westernized women, whose unbound legs appeared more beautiful. The Chinese women must have led miserable lives. It is really sad.

  4. Pingback: Nomination: Very Inspiring Blogger Award #2 | Live Laugh Love

    1. alygeorges Post author

      Before I learned about foot binding, I had been researching on FGM; another practice which is carried out mainly for the satisfaction of the men in those communities which practice it. Ever since, I’m trying to find things men have gone through for women but until now I haven’t found a single thing. This is because most of these practices are carried out with the sole intent to subjugate women. You’re right; It is time for it to stop.

  5. Pingback: Female Genital Mutilation vs Cosmetic surgery | alygeorges

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