Thursday, 24 April 2008

Chinese Foot Binding

The term 'foot binding' is self-explanatory. It brings to mind images of ancient Chinese rickshaws, dainty shoes and women with feet grotesquely contorted by swaths of bandages, usually accompanied by the reek of infected, gangrenous flesh. Although this picture may invoke revulsion in most of us today, the art of foot binding was in fact once popular and revered in ancient China as a symbol of status and identity. In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 4.5 billion Chinese women had been subjected to this painful art in the last one thousand years.

The History of Foot Binding

The general consensus is that the roots of foot binding lie in the Sung1dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, although there are numerous folk lore and legends surrounding its actual origin. One of these dates back to the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 BC), attributing the origin of foot binding to a fox who assumed the guise of the Shang Empress and tried to conceal its paws; another claims that the Empress was club-footed and asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the model of beauty in the court2. A more plausible story, however, tells of a Sung dynasty prince named Li Yu who had a fetish for tiny feet and who made his concubine dance a variation of the ballet called the 'toe dance' with her feet bound. The concubine, whose name was Yao Niang, was supposed to have been so graceful that she 'skimmed on top of golden lilies'. (This probably should not be taken literally.)

By the end of the 12th Century the practice of binding feet was rampant and severe. The Mongols, who supplanted the Sung dynasty with their own Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD), were huge supporters of foot binding. The foot-binding tradition gradually spread from members of the dynasty court to the wealthy during the reign of the Ming Emperor, and to all the social classes as foot binding gradually became associated with marriage and status.

The 17th Century saw a decline of the ongoing tradition of foot binding as the Manchu barbarians seized control of the Ming dynasty and supplanted it with their Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). The Manchus abhorred all Han Chinese traditions; above all, their attire and adornment, including foot-binding, and imposed death penalties on those who breached the fashion code. Men were made to shave their heads; women were made to unbind their feet. The Emperor Kangxi tried in 1664 to impose a ban upon foot binding. However, his futile attempt was thwarted barely three or four years later when the Ministry of Rites submitted a 'memorial' urging the retraction of the ban.

It wasn't until 1895 that the first anti-foot binding society was formed in Shanghai, whose members emphasised the point that the ordeal a woman went through in the painful process was an obstacle to her education. The daughters of the society members were guaranteed partners, either with members of the society or with more liberal non-members who did not insist on bound feet as a prerequisite for marriage.

However, it was not until 1911 when the Manchu dynasty was toppled by Sun Yat Sen's revolution (which was followed by the formation of the New Republic of China) that foot binding was outlawed. In 1915 the Chinese government declared the practice illegal and sent inspectors to issue monetary fines to those who continued to uphold the tradition.

Despite the outlawing of this custom, foot binding continued in isolated regions of China until the 1930s. Half a century later, the last factory manufacturing shoes for women with bound feet in Hanbin, China ceased production of what had come to be identified with pain and suffering.

Interestingly enough, the Punti Chinese who migrated to Hawaii brought with them the foot-binding tradition, and only surrendered this custom when a ban was imposed in 1898. On the face of it, that is.

The Art of Foot Binding

The Hazards of Having Bound Feet

The Symbolism of Bound Feet

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