One day in the courts of Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-976), the concubine Yao Niang bound her feet in silk so they looked like crescent moons and danced on her toes. Word spread of the graceful beauty of her dance, and by the Song Dynasty (1127-1279) the custom of foot binding spread to the Chinese elite as a status symbol.
The beauty standards of ancient China varied from dynasty to dynasty, but in each certain criteria remained constant, including a willowy figure, pale skin, and small feet. Possession of these features implied that their owner did not need to work hard in the hot sun and could rely on servants to perform household tasks. By the end of the Song Dynasty, foot binding diffused to the common population. If a girl wanted to marry well, she had to bind her feet, as it signified status, humility, and sexual appeal. (The last because bound feet forced girls to walk in a swaying manner.)
Girls endured immense pain during foot binding. The process began before the arch of the foot had developed, usually before age 7. Mothers would bend the toes of their daughters under their feet until they broke, then broke the arch. Cotton wrappings tightly bound the foot to bring the heel and ball together. As often as possible, they removed the bindings to wash the feet and cut away infection, then reapplied the cotton more tightly. The goal was that eventually a girl had “three-inch golden lotuses”, or four-inch in Western measurements.
In the 19th century, the custom faced much criticism from the Manchu people, who introduced flower bowl shoes to produce a woman’s attractive swaying gait without foot binding; the Hakka people, who rejected the practice completely; and Westerners after the Opium Wars opened China to the rest of the world. Christian missionary societies through the Western world launched campaigns against it and, during the Qing Dynasty, scholar and reformer Kang Youwei (康有为) and others formed Foot Emancipation Societies (不缠足会) to promote the banning of foot binding.
When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Nationalist government imposed anti-foot binding laws, but not until the Communists took control of the government in 1949 could authorities enforce the law throughout the country. Today, very few, and then only the elderly, still have bound feet.
From the perspective of today, we may gawk that such a practice once met with national acceptance. We may gape at mothers who would subject their daughters to such suffering. Remember, though, that these bindings were fulfilled not out of malice, but out of love. They were three-inch golden lotuses for limitless golden futures.
McBirney, Jessica. “The Golden Lotus: A History of Footbinding.” CommonLit, 2016, https://www.commonlit.org/texts/the-golden-lotus-a-history-of-foot-binding. Accessed 8 February 2018.
“Footbinding in Imperial China.” Dance’s Historical Miscellany, 25 August 2014, http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/tag/china/. Accessed 8 February 2018.
Strochlic, Nina. “China’s Last Foot-Binding Survivors.” Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, LLC, 2 July 2014, https://www.thedailybeast.com/chinas-last-foot-binding-survivors. Accessed 8 February 2018.