Not a tradition throughout China in all times and places, as many think, but still very prevalent in China up to the end of the Qing dynasty. The process involved taking a little girl's foot and bending it under. Crunch. Can you hear the bones cracking? Because if that happend, it was okay. Then they would be bound in silk wrappings. They would have to be changed frequently for at least the first few years, as they would be soaked with blood and pus. For some women, they never stopped bleeding--for all women, they never stopped hurting. Sexy, eh? A woman was completely unable to walk bare-footed. In her specially made shoes, she could hobble very slowly. If she tripped or lost a shoe, she would have to crawl. Some women's feet were as small as two or three inches. They were prized as the most beautiful and desirable wives and concubines. The custom started in the upper classes, but spread to the lower classes because they wished to advance their daughter's fortune--and later, because she would be unmarriageable if her feet were not bound.

Footbinding continued into the twentieth century in some areas. My gorge rises just writing this up.
Chinese custom. The precise origins of this custom are unkown, but the the custom first appeared during the tenth century Tang dynasty. Foot binding was accomplished by binding a young girl's feet with tight strips of linen, thereby inhibiting the foot's growth. Since the top toe was bent backwards and the other toes were tucked under the foot, thereby breaking the arch, the process was extremely painful and left the girl in an almost crippled state. Girls who were considered suitably attractive were selected for this process between the ages of five and twelve.

In the earliest inicidents of this ritualistic disfiguration, the bound foot had strong sexual meaning, and it was fetishized as a sexual object in poetry (calling bound feet the "golden lotus"). The mincing walk of the women was considered erotically stimulating.

Foot binding reached the height of its popularity in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It started as only an upperclass custom, but soon became adopted at all social levels, and only those peasants who could not afford to lose a worker abstained from the practice. The woman with bound feet was a status symbol for the family, showing that they could successfully take on such a burden. By the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), no woman with unbound feet could expect to get a good offer of marriage.

Foot binding was banned with the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, and the practice began to decline steadily after that. Another ban in 1949, decreed by the People's Republic of China was moot, as the practice had all but disappeared.

My great-grandmother, who recently passed away at the age of 96, escaped the torture that is footbinding because she came from a fairly Westernized and rich industrial family, who didn't need their daughters to marry rich to advance up the social ladder. Her father didn't want my great-grandmother to suffer the fate of his wife, who was chosen for him (it was made by a matchmaker).

The old lady used to tell me stories of how her mother would bite her lip at night to stifle her screams of pain as she removed the "wrappings", which were really bandages. The arch of the foot was completely destroyed, bent upwards, so that the toes pointed down instead of forward. The procedure was performed on her at the age of 2, she remembered every detail before fainting from the pain.

Sometimes, after walking too much (about a mile), my poor ancestral mother would pass out, and had to be carried home by her husband, who cried for her, because he loved her, despite the fact that it was an arranged marriage. Later in life, he sent her to America in an attempt to fix her feet, which were by then a mass of broken bones and swollen flesh. After several surgeries, her feet was nearly straightened out, but it was still grotesquely misshappen. A large number of bone fragments had to be physically removed, but at least she could now walk without passing out from the pain. She had to soak her feet in strong disinfectant every day. Ouch.

The atrocity of footbinding was abolished completely by the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, which had strict rules on the equality of women. Hence explained the large number of women sympathetic to their cause, many of their guerilla fighters were women.

Athem. I may be the only person here who's actually had this done (albeit as an adult). Firstly, there are various forms, most of which are not irreversably damaging: that is, it is possible, through diligent and gradual loosening over some weeks, to get a natural foot back. Second, the tiny, tiny shoes you see in museums are actually toe caps -- the heel of the foot isn't covered, being tucked up into the folds of whatever you're wearing. This is how I learned to footbind.

OK. So what you do is to get some long pieces of cotton, say 8 inches wide by 10 feet long, some talcum and a safety pin or two (since you aren't sewing yourself in). Powder your foot well. Tuck the toes under, you'll be walking on 'em. Fold the cotton in half, roll the two ends and put the toes on the fold. The general idea is to pull the foot into a crescent shape by unrolling the cotton (like an elastic bandage) in a figure eight to lasso the ankle. Pin it up when you're done.

So how does it feel to walk this way? Not having toe caps, I've only walked a little indoors. It HURTS, but not excruciatingly -- truthfully, I've had worse high heels. It IS graceful -- the extra inch or so, plus the fact that you have to take tiny baby steps means that you sort of flutter, instead of walking. I could only go about ten feet in any given direction at a time, but I suppose if I were a Chinese sing-song girl, I wouldn't be walking much of anywhere, and as for a "lady", hum, well, you don't run marathons in a drawing room. I wouldn't want to walk too far outside even with shoes.

Apparently, it works best if you're a bit of a physical anomaly footwise, with VERY high arches, strong toes, and VERY well excercised legs. It was originally a dancer thing, not surprisingly, since it's somewhat like pointework. Unfortunately, some hookers got into the habit of keeping the wraps on...and well, anything misused is bound to be hurtful, so to speak. Most of the real horror stories were spread by Methodist ministers, who wanted to get money to convert the heathen Chinese, and whose wives may well have been dealing with corsets at the time.

Strange to say, I've wished I could lose weight so I could do it again....

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