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Foot Binding, Status and Society in Early China Essay

In early China, the Han Dynasty to the end of the Manchu Dynasty, there was a practice known as foot binding. Foot binding was considered a symbol of status for women for many reasons. The disabling effects of foot binding caused women not to be able to participate in any form of hard labour, it confined them to the home, and was considered erotic by men, thus acceptable. The explanation for binding ones feet tells us that society at the time was extremely patriarchal, that a women’s chastity was extremely important, and that it was imperative for women to conform to changing cultural ideals.

Foot binding was a practice that started during the Tang Dynasty when a prince, Li Yo, enjoyed watching his concubine dance before him with tiny bound “lily feet”[i]. Since then it became popular in the Han Dynasty. Women would wash and massage their daughters’ feet, turn their toes under, and then they would break their daughters’ arches, and finally wrap the foot tightly in a cotton bandage pulling the big toe and heel together as well as hold the rest of the toes in place[ii]. The average length of the foot was three inches after the process had been completed.

This caused the foot to be seriously deformed. The women would be disabled to the point where they could barely walk; sometimes toes would even fall off as a result of the bindings[iii]. Working and peasant class women would not usually have their feet bound because it was necessary for them to be able to do manual labour, but if mothers desired for their daughters to marry into good families they would risk losing their daughters labour to bind their daughters’ feet. [pic] Foot binding was considered a symbol of status for several reasons, many elating to how women were seen during this era.

The earlier Chinese peoples had a society based on Confucian values. Confucianism has it’s foundation on the Yin and Yang ideal[iv]. Yin is the representative of all that is bad, weak, and female; and Yang is all that is good, strong, and male. The same can be seen in early Chinese values. At the time of foot binding the Chinese felt that women were weak, immoral, and should be subservient to men. Men felt that the female body should be repressed to keep it chaste and to keep women in their inferior place.

Therefore the bound foot allowed women to show their loyalty, publicly, to these ideals. A woman who lived as an obedient and chaste person was desirable to men at the time and foot binding was a way for women to show that they were this way. There are other reasons as well, why foot binding was used as an emblem of status. Besides being a sign of chastity and obedience in a woman, being desirable traits, foot binding was used to show that a female was of a wealthy background (in the beginning). A woman who had her feet bound as a child could not endure standing for any lengthy period of time unassisted.

Standing on a bound foot was very painful and most carried a cane to shift their weight on. Therefore, if women could barely stand with bound feet, they also could not work. This meant that only women from families that could afford to do without their labour could afford to bind their feet. As a result when a man’s family, of wealthy background, was in search of a bride they would search for a bride with bound feet because they not only would know that she was from a wealthy background herself, but knew she would not leave the home often, and would not cheat.

Mothers often started the binding process on their daughters as young as four years old to ensure their daughters a good marriage later in life[v]. This shows that it was important for a woman to marry into a good family because women were willing to endure such pain for elevated social status and a secure life. When foot binding was prevalent, a man’s needs were second only to a parent’s needs. When men began to find foot binding physically erotic many women had their feet bound to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.

Just as women today squeeze their feet into tight torturous high heels for the sake of cosmetics, Chinese women bound their feet for the same reason; for the sake of being more physically attractive for men. Men found the “staggering dance-like walk[vi]” of the bound foot to be extremely erotic. As well the struggle to walk actually made the muscles of the vagina tighter, increasing sexual pleasure for men[vii]. During this period men found the foot to be the most alluring part of the female body, when tightly bound to a length of three inches.

Therefore not only was a bound foot a symbol of wealth and adherence to cultural values, but it was also a sign of beauty. The Manchu Dynasty tried to abolish the tradition of foot binding during its rule, but failed. The practice of foot binding went on in China for approximately one thousand years. It was outlawed after 1911 when the Manchu Dynasty fell. There are actually women who still practice foot binding today because they feel it is attractive, but their numbers are very small[viii].

Though the practice is almost extinct today, foot binding continued somewhat after its being outlawed for the sake of tradition which is very important in Chinese culture, then and now. The entire practice of foot binding tells the historian a lot about Chinese society up to the end of the reign of the Manchu Dynasty. Foot binding shows how China was an extreme patriarchy. Society at the time felt that a woman’s place was in the home and to be chaste, a bound foot kept her there. A woman who had bound feet openly showed that she was more than willing to conform to the values of the age for the sake of status.

The practice of foot binding also showed that when it came time to be married it was important to be from a wealthy background to ensure a good match, and stability within the marriage. Finally, foot binding shows that in this era women were seen as objects for they enjoyment of men. From the first concubine who bound her feet and danced for a prince to satisfy his desire, to later women who did it to be seen as sexual objects, foot binding has been a custom to gratify men’s desires, despite the pain and malformation it causes.


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