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Bound By Tradition

Article #335 • Written by Alan Bellows

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On 20 October 1998, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, China sent out a press release stating that they were officially halting production of a curious variety of footwear known as “lotus shoes.” This announcement may appear pedestrian to Western eyes, but in a way it was a symbolic epitaph for a bizarre custom which had been in practice in parts of China for about a thousand years: a process known as foot binding.

Until the mid-twentieth century, a girl born into an affluent family in China was almost certain to be taken aside sometime in her first few years to begin a process of sculpting her feet into tiny, pointed “lotus” feet. This body modification was intended to attract suitors and flaunt one's upper-crusty status. The culture at large considered these reshaped feet to be beautiful, and the dainty gait that resulted from such radically reshaped extremities was seen as alluring, but the process of producing lotus feet was grisly, problematic, and led to lifelong podiatric problems.

The invention of foot binding is not well documented, but the earliest known written records of the practice date back to the Southern Tang dynasty around 937 AD. Some historians believe that the tradition arose when women started imitating the imperial concubine "Fragrant Girl" who was known for her diminutive wrapped feet; others attribute the tradition to a troupe of court dancers who pioneered the process around the same time. Regardless of its origins, these re-engineered feet became fashionable among upper-class Chinese families around a thousand years ago, and it was in practice until somewhat recently.

Generations of trial and error led practitioners of foot binding to master the craft of twisting and reshaping a young girl's sole. Foot binding was usually conducted in winter months so that the cold could be used to help numb the injuries and prevent infection. Sometime after a daughter of the well-to-do turned 2 years old, and generally before they turned 5, the young girl and her malleable skeleton were taken aside by an elder female family member or a professional foot binder to initiate the foot-altering process. Though there was an old saying that a mother couldn't love her daughter and her daughter's feet at the same time, the procedure was seldom carried out by the mother personally because she would likely find it difficult to ignore the child's considerable distress.

To begin the foot binding process, the foot binder would gently soak the child's feet in a solution of animal blood and herbs. Her toenails were trimmed and groomed, and her feet were thoroughly massaged. Once the skin was softened and the muscles were relaxed, the foot binder would curl the child's toes down towards the sole of the foot as far as the bones would allow. The binder would then curl the toes farther than the bones would allow, snapping the toddler's phalanges and forming a kind of twisted foot-fist. No manner of pain relief was employed during this process, so the binder was required to disregard any agonized screams. Next, the arch was broken.

The girl's foot--now a suitably sculptable sack of bones--was wrapped in long bandages which had been soaked in the secret recipe of herbs and bloods. With each winding the bindings were pulled as tightly as possible, drawing the ball and the heel of the foot increasingly closer and tapering the end of the foot into a point. The wrappings were then thoroughly stitched and allowed to tighten as they dried. Then on to the other foot.

Afterwards, the girl's feet were periodically unwrapped to clean the crevasses, trim the the oddly oblique toenails, and remove any dead flesh. The foot maintainer might opt to peel the toenails off altogether if they were becoming sites for infection. Sometimes a toe or two would fall off during this process, leaving even more room for reshaping. The girl's feet were then re-wrapped even tighter than before, causing her footprint to shrink further as the bones slowly fused into their new configuration. Occasionally girls' feet would fester, and blood poisoning from gangrene could be a cause for concern, but an estimated 90% survived the process.

Once the feet reached their target petiteness of 7.5 centimeters (about 3 inches), the unsightly bindings were adorned with embroidered silk slippers. When a perfectly lotus-footed lady was inserted into society she became a sought-after mate. Her reconfigured feet were made obvious by her distinct manner of walking: a swaying shuffle which came to be known as the Lotus Gait. Bound feet were considered to be sexually exciting to men, and girls who had them were much more likely to land a prestigious marriage. Sex manuals described numerous erotic acts married couples could perform involving lotus feet, but men were warned never to look upon the feet without their shoes and bindings, lest the aesthetic be destroyed forever. Moreover, unwrapped lotus feet were said to have a powerful and disagreeable odor owing to the accumulation of bacteria among the unnatural folds of the deformed feet. Dainty is dandy, but necrotic is not erotic.

Although the practice was initially limited to upper-crust families, people of lesser prestige soon began to conform with the tradition. A lotus-footed wife was not only coveted for her signature locomotion, but her injuries also tended to keep her from wandering far from home. Such women tended to forego participation in society and politics owing to their restricted mobility, and they became dependent upon their husbands and families for the rest of their lives. In spite of their high cultural status their existence consisted of little more than domestic seclusion.

Foot binding remained a popular practice in parts of China until efforts to ban it arose around the turn of the twentieth century. Anti-footbinding reformers educated the populace regarding the outside world's view of foot binding as barbaric, and taught the practical advantages of unmangled feet. Fear of international ridicule was a powerful motivator, and in a single generation the practice was almost eradicated, yet some stubborn families continued the tradition until it was prohibited by the new Communist government in 1949. Enterprising citizens invented a hobbling shoe that mimicked the trademark shuffle of bound feet, thereby providing an alternate route to social standing, but the stigma overpowered the appeal. Finally, after a millennium of misguided tradition, all Chinese citizens would be on equal footing.

At its height the contorted tradition was practiced by approximately 50% of middle-class Chinese families, and nearly 100% of affluent families. All told, the number of Chinese girls that were subjected to foot binding is numbered in the billions tens of millions. There are a few hundred foot-bound women who still survive, most of them octogenarians or greater. It is easy to look back at the bygone barbarism and wonder how it was allowed to continue for so long, but it is equally easy to overlook how blind one can be to the pressures of one's own culture. Perhaps one day humanity will learn to recognize the imprudence of inflicting antiquated traditions upon those too young to make up their own minds.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 23 November 2011. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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41 Comments
Lyzar
Posted 23 November 2011 at 04:46 pm

The process just makes your stomach turn. A well written article, DI Indeed!


sssssssspoon
Posted 23 November 2011 at 09:13 pm

damn. ouch.


doc
Posted 23 November 2011 at 09:17 pm

And I though my feet hurt. You've been missed. Welcome back and keep up the good work.


Cadae
Posted 23 November 2011 at 10:18 pm

Is that last comment a nod to male circumcision?


Cadae
Posted 23 November 2011 at 10:20 pm

said: "Is that last comment a nod to male circumcision?"

...errr sentence not comment


Diana Bellows
Posted 23 November 2011 at 10:26 pm

GAH! Well, at least they didn't have to go on grim, hopeless quests to find flattering heels in a 7 1/2 wide. But what did all those ladies, who already had hideously shaped feet, do for shoes after 1998? I doubt Zappos carries those...


soccerhate
Posted 23 November 2011 at 11:05 pm

Damn interesting and well written indeed! Thanks so much!


ti83
Posted 24 November 2011 at 12:12 am

My feet hurt.


damnG
Posted 24 November 2011 at 01:22 am

"...the procedure was seldom carried out by the mother..."

I am disturbed that mothers would consent to this, if they did! A girl's feet were broken when she was between 2 and 5 years old. Children are much more sensitive to pain than adults. Makes me want to cry and I don't even have children yet.

"...easy to overlook how blind one can be to the pressures of one’s own culture."

Very good message. Today more relevant than ever, even if we don't break children's feet everyday.

Alan Bellows for president !!! Hehehe :)


AfterBroadway
Posted 24 November 2011 at 03:45 am

Good lord. That is one sexy foot crevice.


stevekj
Posted 24 November 2011 at 06:04 am

Turn my stomach indeed. I was trying to eat breakfast! Ugh!

And further to Cadae's comment: - or indeed, female circumcision? (And you thought foot-binding was stomach-churning!)


arbyrb
Posted 24 November 2011 at 08:26 am

"Billions" of girls were subjected to this? I strongly doubt it, even with the thousand year history of the practice. After all, it was only the affluent who did it, and it was restricted to girls, all women would have to have been bound to reach "billions". Plural. Can't be right.


lacb
Posted 24 November 2011 at 08:33 am

Easy to criticize other cultures and different traditions. Is ours above reproach?

What about shoes with pointed toes and stiletto heels that cause foot problems. Still considered sexy. What about breast augmentation and its attendant risks, and constricting clothing that cause vaginal problems. What about malnourishment of our kids - five-year-old's will choose pizza, fries and candy over other food - where did they learn that?

“…how blind one can be to the pressures of one’s own culture.”

Civilization is a pretty thin veneer. Nothing much has changed. The current cultural fashions in sex appeal are hard to ignore.


Spike
Posted 24 November 2011 at 06:17 pm

DI article, but very disturbing practice.


jabba359
Posted 26 November 2011 at 01:06 pm

Damn disgusting! Good thing I wasn't eating lunch while reading this...


Anonymousx2
Posted 27 November 2011 at 02:50 pm

This DI article also brings to mind what I have read about some societies that practice clitoridectomies.

I have read for years that all cultures are to be respected and that we must accept what is done because some sound adaptive reason exists.

I used to accept that thinking.

Over the last several years, though, I have begun to think that some cultures are either inhuman or inferior.

I have not made a full decision yet, but I am leaning strongly toward that conclusion.


xoxoxoBruce
Posted 28 November 2011 at 10:15 pm

When binding feet interferes with barefoot and pregnant, it has to go. ;o)


errna
Posted 29 November 2011 at 01:09 am

Ahh, Harbin, many good memories (i lived there for 3 years a decade ago). Anyway, I've been living in China for 13 years now, travel a lot because of my job, I only met one (and she was easily 80yo, as the article says) woman who had bound feet (in Dalian, back in year 2000).
'Lotus shoes' can be bought as souvenirs in many cities in China.


groover000
Posted 30 November 2011 at 12:36 pm

"All told, the number of Chinese girls who were subjected to foot binding is numbered in the billions."

I find billions hard to believe. Should this state millions instead?


Alan Bellows
Posted 30 November 2011 at 01:56 pm

groover000 said: "I find billions hard to believe. Should this state millions instead?"

Most estimates are in the neighborhood of 2 billion. Keep in mind that it was a very popular practice for a thousand years. Example:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=8966942


Silverhill
Posted 04 December 2011 at 12:43 pm

Alan Bellows said: "Perhaps one day humanity will learn to recognize the imprudence of inflicting antiquated traditions upon those too young to make up their own minds."

Cadae said: "Is that last sentence a nod to male circumcision?"

Perhaps, but at least circumcision does not result in painful deformity. Much worse is clitoridectomy (euphemized, by some, as "female circumcision" when it is actually the excision of the clitoris!), possibly the most damning (and damnable) example of male domination of females.

One other possibility for that "antiquated traditions" notion would be the inculcation of (various) religious doctrine in the very young, who are not yet able to approach the subject with properly developed critical faculties....


SockMonkey
Posted 04 December 2011 at 03:03 pm

Well written, also cringe inducing.

Don't know why but the x-ray image reminds me of a face-hugger form aliens. :)


sid
Posted 06 December 2011 at 10:00 am

Perhaps, but at least circumcision does not result in painful deformity. Much worse is clitoridectomy (euphemized, by some, as “female circumcision” when it is actually the excision of the clitoris!), possibly the most damning (and damnable) example of male domination of females.

Not to downplay the horrific nature of clitoridectomy (it is, in my opinion, much worse), but there are lots of people who consider circumcision to result in a painful deformity. Personally, I prefer to go without the turtleneck, even if it wasn't my choice, and there are many arguments for and against it. It may have had its origins in "antiquated traditions," but there is an argument it is preferred to go without a permanent hoody for reasons that include health concerns. Of course, there are no such arguments for clitoridectomy, unless you want to try to claim it cuts down on promiscuity, so it could cut down on unintended pregnancies and STDs.

One other possibility for that “antiquated traditions” notion would be the inculcation of (various) religious doctrine in the very young, who are not yet able to approach the subject with properly developed critical faculties…."

No need to single out faith. Knowledge is always evolving, and things that were taught in the past to "the very young, who (were) not yet able to approach (such subjects) with properly developed critical faculties" are not taught today. Scientists, historians, grammarians, etc., change their approach to any number of disciplines over time, so one could argue those theories that have been disproven, interpretations that have fallen out of favor, or applications that have simply changed can also be considered "antiquated traditions."


Ard Ri
Posted 06 December 2011 at 12:14 pm

Reminds me of the women of Burma with their Damn long necks.


Jared Lessl
Posted 09 December 2011 at 10:21 pm

Well, let's see.

http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1950_population.htm

China's population from 1000-1500AD was relatively stable, averaging about 60 million. Obviously, only half of them were women, and if this was limited to the upper crust, then the vast majority would not have had this done. Let's be extremely generous and say 10%. Discounting infant mortality, let's assume an average life expectancy of 50 years (these were high society women, after all, not farm wives), so that's a surviving-to-adulthood birth rate of 2% per year. Which means that for those 5 centuries, 2% of 10% of 50% of 60 million = 60,000 per year, is 30 million women between 1000 and 1500 AD.

My math skills are a bit rusty, and I don't think I can accurately do the same calculations for the following 5 centuries of exponential growth. But I think we can safely say that while the number of women whose feet were bound is indeed several orders of magnitude too high, it's not in the billions.

Ugh, now apply "an estimated 90% survived the process" to these figures. Means that 10% did _not_.


sulkykid
Posted 11 December 2011 at 07:57 am

Billions indeed! The bad math here, and the meek acceptance of this bad math, disturbs me more than any foot-binding or male/female circumcision.


Alan Bellows
Posted 11 December 2011 at 02:40 pm

Regarding the skepticism surrounding the "billions" estimate: I used the term "billions" because 1-2 billion seems to be the consensus among historians who have written about this subject. But it's always good to check the math.

According to these same historians, the practice was adopted by about half of the families in China (about 50% of middle-class families and nearly 100% of affluent families). Based on Jared Lessl's source, life expectancy in China was about 42 years for a woman in China in 1950, but I'll use 50 years so I can estimate more quickly.

Using the graph from that same source, I noted the estimated population at fifty year intervals to represent a fifty-year life span. I divided each value in half to get the female population, and in half again to represent the half of the people who adopted the practice. I summed the numbers, and came up with an estimate of 836,250,000. That's an awful lot, and while it is billions of feet, it's only hundreds-of-millions of girls.

My estimation method was quick-and-dirty, but it is sufficient to reveal the error. My apologies for the original inaccuracy, it has been fixed in the article. Thanks for keeping us correct.

Of course this all assumes that historians are correct about the fraction of families who adopted the practice...if they were wrong about the "two billion" thing, they may be off on that estimate as well. Damned ambiguous history.


casaba
Posted 13 December 2011 at 10:02 am

One assumption in the population calculation seems suspect: the idea that half the population was "middle class". I generally understood the term to apply to the merchant classes, which were a minority relative to the peasantry. (A quick search for "middle class medieval China" did not get far other than validating the terms "middle class" and "peasantry".)

And thank you Alan for the new posts. Just found my way back, and whether it is familiar (foot binding) or completely new (ice worms), it is always a good read.


panorama
Posted 16 December 2011 at 04:11 am

said: "“…the procedure was seldom carried out by the mother…”

I am disturbed that mothers would consent to this, if they did! A girl’s feet were broken when she was between 2 and 5 years old. Children are much more sensitive to pain than adults. Makes me want to cry and I don’t even have children yet.
...

Such a mothers has no sole.


RealEstateGuy
Posted 25 December 2011 at 02:06 am

wow, a lot of old cultures had these social abnormalities. Very Interesting.


jonathands
Posted 05 January 2012 at 12:06 am

50 years from now we will be readiang about the absurdity of botox and silicon


Flippant
Posted 12 January 2012 at 08:11 am

Panorama said: "Such a mothers has no sole."

Aww such mothers had soles.. which were no doubt sculpted into tiny pointed lotus shape too.


Kothos
Posted 17 January 2012 at 05:35 am

Not to downplay the horrific nature of clitoridectomy (it is, in my opinion, much worse), but there are lots of people who consider circumcision to result in a painful deformity. Personally, I prefer to go without the turtleneck, even if it wasn’t my choice, and there are many arguments for and against it. It may have had its origins in “antiquated traditions,” but there is an argument it is preferred to go without a permanent hoody for reasons that include health concerns. Of course, there are no such arguments for clitoridectomy, unless you want to try to claim it cuts down on promiscuity, so it could cut down on unintended pregnancies and STDs.

You're right, male circumcision can be, nay must be, regarded as a deformity, since any circumcision results in the restrictive formation of at least some scar tissue and interferes with the normal lubricating operation of the penile sheath.

No need to single out faith. Knowledge is always evolving, and things that were taught in the past to “the very young, who (were) not yet able to approach (such subjects) with properly developed critical faculties” are not taught today. Scientists, historians, grammarians, etc., change their approach to any number of disciplines over time, so one could argue those theories that have been disproven, interpretations that have fallen out of favor, or applications that have simply changed can also be considered “antiquated traditions.”"

Hmm, I do think there is a need to single out faith. Faith is particularly blessed with not only allowing, but demanding, non-evidentiary beliefs. At least scientists and historians tend to evolve their knowledge in a direction of greater truth. Faithians do not.


sid
Posted 17 January 2012 at 10:56 am

Hmm, I do think there is a need to single out faith. Faith is particularly blessed with not only allowing, but demanding, non-evidentiary beliefs. At least scientists and historians tend to evolve their knowledge in a direction of greater truth. Faithians do not."

If your position is that faith has not evolved, then I would say you are incorrect. There is a reason most religions (if not all) have different factions that operate under the same, general umbrella. People of faith have their own idea of the truth, and work towards it in their own ways. You may disagree with their "truth," but that in no way makes you more correct than they.

If your position is that there are no scientists or historians that have ever argued a particular position, in spite of mounting evidence to indicate their theories are not just inaccurate, but simply wrong, I would also say that you are incorrect. I do note your qualifier of "tend," but I'm not so convinced the goal for most is "truth," but more affirmation of previously held beliefs. It may be the inevitable goal, at least as far as science goes, but there are countless cases of "researchers" who have fudged data in order to support a "conclusion" that was held prior to the actual "research" being concluded.

As for historians, as they say, history is written by the victors, so I would not say the same about historians as I would scientists. Analysis of historical events is rather subjective. Take a particular struggle that took place in the past, and you could have one group of individuals referred to as liberators, enslavers, terrorists, revolutionaries, etc. Take a particular event and you could have any number of theories as to what led to it occuring. That is the nature of the study of history. It is unlikely there will ever be complete concurrence among historians on who, what, when, where, and why when it comes to events in the distant past, or even the recent. Nonetheless, "history" will continue to be taught to “the very young, who are not yet able to approach (such subjects) with properly developed critical faculties.”

Similarly, countless scientific disciplines will also be taught to “the very young, who are not yet able to approach (such subjects) with properly developed critical faculties.” I'm not saying that is either right or wrong. I'm just saying that it is so. I know I was taught Pluto was a planet when I was a child, and had not the "properly developed critical faculties" to argue against such a claim. Apparently, though, I was taught incorrectly. I am not aware of Pluto having physically changed to justify it being downgraded, so I can only presume that science was wrong. Or perhaps scientists are able to change the "rules" in order to justify their new-found position on Pluto. If that's the case, what other "rules" can be changed in order to justify new views?

Now, I'm not familiar with the term "Faithian" (Do I need to capitalize?), but based on your post, it would seem to be intended, at least somewhat, to be derogatory. If that's the case, and based on your comments, then I guess I understand your prejudice towards faith and people who have it. You are certainly entitled to such a view, but in my opinion, it simply speaks more about you than it does about the subject discussed here.


Charlotte
Posted 24 January 2012 at 09:38 pm

said: "“Billions” of girls were subjected to this? I strongly doubt it, even with the thousand year history of the practice. After all, it was only the affluent who did it, and it was restricted to girls, all women would have to have been bound to reach “billions”. Plural. Can’t be right."

Actually it was not just the affluent in most of China. About 80% of all females over the age of 10 or so had bound feet by the 1700s. Footbinding was at its height and most widely spread right around the time it began to decline due to foreign influence, mainly. And once Chinese men came back from the West or from a progressive school, they did not want bound-footed women. Countless women who endured the binding had to unbind their feet in their adult years--a very painful process.

Lisa See, an American writer with some Chinese ancestry, has written about life in China. One good book is Snow Flower and the Fan. It describes footbinding as carried out in both poor and upper class families. It was not confined to the affluent. It was prevalant throughout the country and it is estimated that over about a 1000 yr, one billion girls went through foot binding.


Charlotte
Posted 24 January 2012 at 09:42 pm

btw, there is a connection between the growth of cotton growing and weaving cotton material, and the increase in foot binding. Bound feet are found on mummies as early as the 1000s, but the custom remained limited until the 1700s and the growth of the cotton industry. Before then bindings were made from linen or silk, mostly, and these fabrics were more time consuming to grow and weave. Cotton allowed for greater quantity of material, more cheaply. This was also true in the west as cotton growing increased during the 1700s.


mrs.wadman
Posted 12 February 2012 at 03:14 pm

Also, still today, Chinese children are stolen from the country-side. They are kept for years, with there limbs tied up is awkward positions. They are kept there for so long, that they can then no longer move the limb back to it's normal position.

Once the 'process' is finished, they are then placed in the streets by their masters to beg. At the end of the day, the master will come and collect them and take all the money that has been given to them.

I learned about this when I went to China and our hosts who lived there told us. I saw a crippled man who had been placed in the middle of a road.

It was very sad and gave me nightmares.

(if you see a situation like this, you should give them food instead of money)


whitequeen96
Posted 12 February 2012 at 10:27 pm

My husband is almost 60 years old, the youngest of a very large family in rural Taiwan. His father's mother came from a well-to-do family and had bound feet, He recalls going with his siblings and cousins into the kitchen, where she always seemed to be, and asking to see her feet. She would unwrap them for the children, and they would all recoil in delicious horror. He can still hear her harsh, boisterous laughter following them as they ran outside, screaming.


oksari
Posted 23 February 2012 at 04:02 pm

I believe and know that Female Genitale Mutilation is totally wrong and horrible!! And I am completely against it!! There is a lot of proof that it leads to countless physical and psychological problems and that it can even lead to death!! However, male circumcision if done properly and at the right time is not a danger at all!! If you are interested to see why you can read the following discoveries that scientist have made on the subject!! And as an added extra!! It seems it can actually be quite a very beneficial and life saving practice to carry out!! Check it out!! :D

http://www.trosch.org/the/circumcision-cancer.pdf


rajesh
Posted 29 March 2012 at 01:08 am

the article was gross . However each and every culture on earth has its share of bad practises . Generation after generation , we are continually moving away from such heineous acts which were once the religious or cultural dogma . We should indeed be grateful for the times we live in .

But not everything is done .

However slow and tedious the process, any soceity will change once the individuals change .

Instead of focusing on a singular example of outdated practise still followed we should take ownership of the way of life of us as individuals and of those small number of people in whose lives we can exercise a positive infulence .

This is the single most important thing that history teaches us .


Kestrel
Posted 29 December 2013 at 01:48 am

Yes, the Snow Flower and the Secret Fan piece focusing on foot binding gave me nightmares. It is hard to grasp a concept that calls for deforming women and children (face it - it's mostly women that undergo such horrors. Who could spare a healthy male for so many years as he deforms nicely?).
Make circumcision is painful to the baby boy but it passes quickly enough compared to other torments and the lifelong repercussions are seen as mostly "missed opportunities" rather than "perennial suffering". Better? Debatable but definitely different.

I guarantee the religion-isn't-horrible comment aimed at disproving another comment that spoke against Faithers
was written by a religious person. I have never come across a sound defense that addressed how religion was NOT bad/wrong/not of good sense that was written by a person who was not of a religious bent. I may make comments declaring certain ways of certain cultures as necessary for their time or otherwise beneficial (foot binding definitely is not one!) but I have never heard an atheist defending a religion's particular idiocyncracy or more. We (the heathens!) are often capable of accepting how a people develop so we are not unable to understand your rites, sacraments, etc. They simply rarely make sense and are therefore not to be viewed the same way. Mayan men may have made themselves crosseyed but that makes infinitely more sense to me than viewing a baby as covered in sin.
(Note: I was a Presbyterian Elder so my knowledge isn't akin to an outside stone-thrower for whatever that means).


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