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The Forbidden Practice of Foot Binding in China

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What is foot binding?

Foot binding, known as 缠足 (chán zú) is an ancient custom which is now banned in China. It is the act of wrapping cloth tightly around both feet of a woman to forcefully make the feet smaller. Foot binding starts at the mere age of just four or five years old and the bandages are usually permanently taken off when the girl reaches adulthood. This will be because the bones will have fused into a fixed shape by then.

When did it start?

Scholars have said that the practice started in the 宋 (sòng) dynasty. Regardless of whether the woman was rich or poor, it would be common for women to have bound feet.

The reason why so many women would do it was simple.

In ancient times, the ideal beauty standard of a woman was to be feminine – small and demure. Small feet enabled women then to walk delicately and attract a partner. The golden standard was for the feet to be just 3 inches long which was called the golden lotus because bound feet would look like a delicate lotus flower. Anything from 4 inches onwards would slim the chance of a woman getting married and would have warranted the rank of a silver lotus foot at best. Many ancient poems and sayings suggested that 3-inch golden lotus feet can save the appearance of even the ugliest woman, and beauty cannot truly come without a golden lotus.

The phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ is real here. Although popular, foot binding destroys the normal development of the feet by breaking the bones. It is extremely painful and can cause disability in later life. Women would also have to wear pointed shoes while sleeping which would act as a retainer to prevent the bandages from becoming loose.

In what was such a patriarchal society in ancient China, foot binding was also seen as way to limit the power of women, keeping them house bound and unable to freely roam outside. The outside then was dominated by men. Furthermore, it also reduced the ability for women to participate in dance or sports and the development of dance art in China stagnated due to the foot binding.

Now banned?

Many attempts have been made to ban the act of foot binding since the 清 (Qīng) dynasty but this was difficult to enforce due to the popularity of having bound feet. It was in 1912, after the nationalist revolution, when footbinding was outlawed and again in 1949 with the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Fortunately, foot binding is no longer common in today’s society.

Watch the video summary of the forbidden foot binding practice here:

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