Although seemingly incomprehensible for the average Western person today, foot binding was a custom which lasted for more than 1,000 years in China. In fact, foot binding was a particular practice reserved for the elite and was reputedly a sign of social status, hierarchy and wealth. Extreme deformity, by way of bound feet, was practiced for its aesthetic appeal and as a symbol of social status. Starting in about the 10th century A. D. , foot binding gained currency in China and was practiced exclusively among women with an eye to aesthetic beauty.
Seeking to address the mysteries behind the foot binding phenomenon and make sense of a custom which seems appears so foreign to the average Western eye, this essay will conduct a thorough analysis of foot binding in China through an exploration of Fred C. Blake’s “Foot-Binding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor”, published in the scholarly journal Signs in 2009. We will begin with an analysis of the history of foot binding in China, explore the practice of foot binding and explain how it is accomplished, as explained in the article.
We will delve into the reasons why foot binding became such a prominent feature in China, conclude with a summary of Blake’s research and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the article. Accordingly, we will analyze the contribution to the field of anthropology. History Foot binding is a practice which is culturally specific and unique to the Asian context. Foot binding gained currency in the 10th century A. D. as an aesthetic characteristic sought after by women in China and is an excellent example of the evolution of conceptions of beauty.
In China, the “lotus foot” was prized among members of all classes as being a standard of beauty to which many women worked hard to obtain. Accordingly, the foot binding custom was an incredibly painful process which required years to obtain and was additionally a painful process as well. Some oral historians relate the tradition of bound feet to the Chinese Prince Li Yu from the Sung dynasty and the gracefulness of his concubine Yao Niang.
In fact, according to legend, Yao Niang, although not a woman with bound feet herself, had such small feet and walked so gracefully that her gait was one in which people all across China stove to emulate. Another legend discusses the life of the last Empress of the Shang dynasty, beautiful women who were born with a clubbed foot. Due to the stigma associated with such a disability in the era, this Empress bound her foot to conceal her deformity and instructed her husband to make the bound foot mandatory for all girls.
By making a bound foot the norm in the kingdom, she thus made her bound foot beautiful and established an important standard of beauty in China. With Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century, they supported the practice of foot binding, allegedly because it demonstrated the inferiority of women to men and fully entrenched sex segregation and gender hierarchies. Establishing the Yuan dynasty, foot binding became more and more prominent in China and continued for more than 800 years thereafter (Blake 681).
Although it may certainly seem usual for the average Westerner today to understand the beauty and desire associated with bound feet in ancient China, this practice is not so dissimilar to corseting, a practice common among the aristocracy of the Western world from the 15th century to the late 19th century. A corset is a garment which is worn to mold the stomach and torso into an incredibly thin shape, with the desired result being an incredibly thin waste. The corset, much like the bound foot, can be incredibly uncomfortable for the wearer and has the potential to result in permanent torso damage and disfigurement.
Corset wearing has an important aesthetic in the West – particularly prominent in Victorian era England – and was a sign of refinement, privilege and beauty. The bound foot is similar and we will discuss the process of foot binding below. How was Foot Binding Accomplished? Now that we have established that there are important historical precedents for the practice of foot binding and that while we are unsure of how it came about, we do now know that it was common in China for nearly a millennia. How was the unique practice of foot binding accomplished?
An article in the American Journal of Public Health which looked at the physical consequences of bound feet on elderly women succinctly described the process. Beginning at the age of five, “all but the first toe on each foot were broken and the feet bound with cloth strips that were tightened over the course of 2 years to keep the feet shorter than 10 cm and to bend the sole into extreme concavity. ” The process was usually undertaken during the fall or winter so that the foot would be numb to the pain when the toes were broken.
Feet were initially soaked – by the mother, an important actor in the process – in warm water and animal blood and herbs and a special potion was applied to the foot. After the toes were broken, bandages were applied around the smallest toes and were affixed tightly to the heel. For the first two years, the binding was removed and reapplied, a painful process, every two days. To ensure that the feet remained deformed and small, this process sometimes continued for ten years (Blake 663).
Foot binding was a practice undertaken exclusively by women in Neo-Confucian China and was a tradition passed down from mother to daughter. It represented female submission and dependence on the husband and was an essential attribute of womanhood. The particular enforcement of this practice by women, on younger women and girls is particularly interesting from a sociological perspective. Accordingly: Mothers constantly informed their daughters that binding was necessary in order to find a good family into which to marry.
Mothers impressed upon their daughters that the mark of a woman’s attraction resided more in her character as revealed in the bind of her feet than in the face or physique with which nature had endowed her. Her selection in marriage was the task of her prospective mother-in-law, whose criterion for a good daughter-in-law was the discipline that the bound foot represented (Blake 683). When it came to binding, there were certain attributes which were essential to the process.
First and foremost, youth was important because foot binding required the physical breaking of the bones of the fee and for the purpose of binding, the optimum age to begin the process was between the ages of five to seven years old. From the standpoint of the female caregiver who was responsible for initiating the binding process of a young girl, the ages of five to seven were ideal for a variety of reasons. From a physical standpoint, a girl between the ages of five to seven had prepubescent bones which were still flexible and optimal for reconfiguration and breaking.
From a mental and social maturation standpoint, a girl between the ages of five to seven was able to understand the meaning associated with foot binding, the prestige associated with a bound foot and the desire to one day marry. Accordingly, a girl between the ages of five to seven could appreciate the need and have the discipline to pursue the sometimes incredibly painful process of foot-binding. Disease and infection generally followed a foot bound girl into womanhood and oftentimes toenails curled into the toe and the foot physically died all together (Blake 684-86).
Although voluntary and a process undertaken by women themselves, foot binding was an inherent attribute of a patriarchic society and was a custom undertaken in light of the social circumstances of Chinese society. Article Analysis Blake provides an excellent overview of the foot binding phenomenon. His article adequately provides substantive background to foot binding and includes an insightful historical analysis to the trend. An effective case is built utilizing both primary and secondary sources and the author provides meticulous – and sometimes hard to swallow – detail on the foot binding phenomenon.
According to Blake, there are many reasons put forth for an incredibly painful and deforming practice, and foot binding is attributed to aesthetic appeal in a society in which tiny feet were conceived of as something erotic. Social status concerns are important and as mentioned above, bound feet were often necessary for a girl to marry. This is largely a result of the patriarchic social structure of China. Bound feet thus signified the dependency of women on men in Chinese society.
By disabling her feet, the bound foot was perhaps the most ardent example of entrenched patriarchy in Chinese society. Accordingly, A woman’s dependency on her family was made manifest in her disabled feet. A popular saying was that in her lifetime, a woman leaned on three men, her father, her husband, and her son. But if a woman’s bound feet made her appear weak and vulnerable and thus dependent on men, it also veiled her inner sense of managing those appearances and thus being able to exercise considerable control over herself and those to whom she was attached (Blake 683).
Concluding Remarks As a cultural practice which lasted for hundreds of years, foot binding was not all that dissimilar to the use of corsets in order to shrink the torso and waists of women in the Western world. Fred C. Blake’s “Foot-Binding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor” explains that what sets foot binding apart from other measures was the incredible pain associated with the practice and the permanent deformities caused by this practice.
While explanations for foot binding often point towards the beauty and the aesthetics of the practice, foot binding was inherently about female submission and subjugation in Chinese society. Foot binding was about patriarchy and the consequences of foot binding on the health of millions of Chinese women are incredibly grave. Thus, deformities due to foot binding are prevalent among women in China and they include being more prone to falling, less able to rise from a chair and a loss of the ability to squat.
Additionally, “women with bound feet also had somewhat lower femoral neck bone density, perhaps because of limited weight bearing activity. The combination of lower hip bone density and greater risk of falling is likely to increase the risk of hip fractures” (Blake 684). For centuries, foot binding thus resulted in severe lifelong disability for millions of women. Works Cited Blake, C. Fred. “Foot-Binding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor” Signs 19. 3 (2009): 676-712.
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