Chinese footbinding

Photo courtesy of Beverly Jackson, Splendid Slippers

Not all women—or even most—had their feet bound. Because it was associated with erotic pleasure, and because bound feet are literally crippling, the practice was primarily confined to girls for whom upper-class marriages were intended and prostitutes. But they paid the high price of beauty for the rest of their lives. Many women lived in excruciating pain and were unable to walk even the shortest of distances. While footbinding spread to other classes over time, servants and women in farming families could not have functioned with the disability of bound feet.

Photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

On the outside, these little feet were beautifully adorned in dainty embroidered slippers. But underneath the bindings were broken bones and rotting flesh. This crippling process began when girls were as young as three years old, their feet tightly wrapped in layers of bandages and their toes pushed back and broken under their soles.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Footbinding seems to have emerged as a common practice during the Song dynasty, sometime in the 11th century. One legend tells of a concubine named Yao Niang, who wrapped her feet with ribbons and danced on her toes atop a lotus shaped platform for Prince Li Yu. He was smitten with her tiny feet, and a fashion trend was born.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

For 1,000 years, it is estimated over 4 and a half billion Chinese women endured this torturous practice. Footbinding was finally outlawed in China in 1911, but it has not completely faded from the culture. Chinese women from older generations can still be seen with bound feet.


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