Footbinding was a fashion, a fad that went horribly, horribly wrong. It started about 1,000 years ago when a dancer with small feet performed in the Chinese imperial court atop a giant lotus sculpture. Women in the court started binding their feet to make them look smaller and create “golden lotuses”. As per usual, it spread to the masses, and not long thereafter, girls from the ages of 3 to 6 had to have their feet bound if there was any hope of them getting married when they were older.
Many times there were infections and toes would fall off or become gangrenous. As described in Aching for Beauty, by Wang Ping, the only feminist critique of footbinding by a Chinese woman that I’ve come across, the foot needed to be,
…small, slim, pointed, arched, fragrant, soft and straight…for about two or three years, little girls go through the inferno of torture: the flesh of her feet, which are tightly bound with layers of bandages day and night, is slowly putrefied, her toes crushed under the soles, and the insteps arched to the degree where the toes and heels meet. Loving mothers turn into monsters that beat their sobbing girls with sticks or brooms, forcing them to hop around to speed up the rotting flesh and make sure the bones are broken properly. When the feet are finally shrunk to the size of a baby’s—three inches long, half an inch wide in the front—they are completely deformed. All the tears and pus, all the decay and broken bones are hidden under the elaborate adornment of the shoes, which are never taken off, not even in bed. Yet violence is traceable everywhere: the odor of dead flesh seeping through the bandages, the tiny appendages that barely support the frail body.
A mother was not allowed to loosen the bindings no matter how much the little girl cried or begged. This was proof of her love for her daughter. She had to save face for her daughter’s wedding day, when everyone would look at her feet and judge whether she would be a good wife or not by the size of her feet. Look at your hand and imagine a grown woman’s foot fitting into its palm. Not all women had 3-inch feet, 4-, 5-, and 6-inch feet were also common. Men would marry women based solely on the smallness of her feet, having never seen their faces. Sometimes they married women old enough to be their mothers, just because their tiny feet were renowned.
Books were written about the erotic pleasures of tiny feet. Every aspect of them was eroticized—the way they smelled (apparently cheesy), the way they felt in the hand or in the mouth during intercourse, the way they made a woman teeter as she walked and how watching her evoked a sense of pity for her helplessness, how they looked like both female and male genitalia, how to insert a penis into the arch, the beautiful embroidered silk shoes shaped like lotus or lily leaves, the hoove-like animal-ness of them, etc. Footbinding had by then become something much deeper than a fad; it had become a reflection of the culture’s tastes and sensibilities in food, art, sexual practices, as well as its control of women.
[Orignally posted 3/6/06 at blissing]
Next: The women in my family.