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Sensitive Style Issues: China’s History Of Foot Binding

If anything, foot binding provides a powerful parallel offering a historic reflection on the cost of attaining beauty standards that cannot be reversed without giving the irreversible procedures required to get there any deep, let alone critical, thought.

When one strives to mix things up and explore all that is China Fashion, certain sensitive issues that have strongly influenced the style-intensive history of the Middle Kingdom beckon to be tackled. A-number-1? Foot binding. Temper Magazine’s Sandy Chu hacks us a path through the thick jungle of fables and truth.

Breaking the toes and binding them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages. When persistent, the next step was to break the arch of the foot to force toes and heel ever closer together. 

The epitome of female refinement in China for at least a millennium, one may argue that foot binding was also designed to act as a token of female oppression and social deprivation. A token of an high-end social status, i.e. not needing those feet for work, and giving women the opportunity for social mobility in the official narrative, something remains to be said for the low-end status of females reflected by this practice throughout that one millennium – if not longer. Socially mobile they may have been, yet due to their literal immobility the women whose feet were bound, had become bound to their living quarters.

Whereas countryside girls with bound feet may have served the economic purpose of creating yarn and fabric by weaving and spinning their hours away inside their rooms, fact remains (from a modern Western POV, true) that with no means to venture outside and set foot in the real world, these women did not play a part in society. Their society ruled by men. In retrospection, the practice of foot binding denotes the ultimate female subjugation. Nevertheless, everything is 20/20 in hindsight….

Foot Binding Laurel Bossen For HuffPo
Courtside-bound. Courtesy of Laurel Bossen For Huffington Post

 

Courtside-Bound

Whereas Europe had the corset for women, China had foot binding. Believed to have begun during China’s Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (10th Century A.D.), one romantically-inclined legend tells us in fabled manner how Emperor Li Yu’s favorite consort Yao Niang danced in a spell-binding way on a six-foot high golden lotus pedestal decorated with diamonds and pearls – granted, that last part come from 20th Century Prince and The Next Power Generation. Her feet bound like in white silk imitating the shape of the crescent moon like a modern-day pointe ballerina, the concubine performed a ballet-styled dance on the points of her feet — on top of the lotus. The enchanting display is said to have inspired the other females at court to do likewise.

In the rather less moonlit version involving violins and candle, another story re-counts that during the Shang Dynasty — alive and kicking around 1600 B.C.(!) and the earliest dynasty of traditional Chinese history supported by archaeological evidence — the ruling concubine Daji, who allegedly suffered from clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make foot binding compulsory for all girls sitting courtside so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Sounds rather more plausible.

Grandfathered into a practice that was almost exclusively practiced by Han Chinese women.

Bata Shoe Museum Toronto
Silk non-Cinderella slippers. Courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum Toronto

Put Into Practice

While we will never truly know how the practice began as historic accounts of the cultural practice’s origin vary, the centuries-long phenomenon has throughout history inspired wide speculation on what the ritual meant, but no clear conclusion exists as of today.

Acting as an enforcement of China’s historically patriarchal beliefs, Chinese women swayed awkwardly through the centuries when foot binding existed, exotically and erotically as they entered the cult of femininity. For the standard-focused society, the lotus feet themselves provided a quantifiable and uniform standard to aspire to. Begun during childhood when a female’s feet were more malleable, each foot was broken, folded in on itself, wrapped and the bindings were sewn shut to allow the foot to reform in the surreal petite arch shape that these women were forced by society to adopt.

Grandfathered into a practice that was almost exclusively practiced by Han Chinese women: For the rich the bandages were reported to be changed daily; for the more aspirational families out there, this meant several times a week.

The lotus foot itself had three levels of distinction, the golden lotus which was three Chinese inches in length approximately 4 inches or 10 cm, the silver lotus four Chinese inches and the bronze lotus five Chinese inches. The higher the ranking, the more marriageable a women was considered to be.

Nonetheless, with this social conformity comes a cost. This is an identity crisis that is likely to make facial recognition a tough sell for the new iPhone8.

Courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum Toronto
A Japanese woman’s bound soles. Courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum Toronto

Powerful Parallels

Considered barbaric by modern social standards, the practice of foot binding lasted up through the middle of the 20th Century, despite being banned in 1912 under the laws of the newly risen Republic of China (1912-1949). Through the Chinese looking glass, although beauty standards have transformed, the underlying structure remains the same. Culturally speaking, the Middle Kingdom has always celebrated narrow-society- defined ideals, set-in-stone specific standards an individual should try to achieve to be deemed alluring attractive, successful, enviable. Superficial and shallow perhaps, but today’s mainstream ideals continue to follow the same narrative that seeks to remove the unexpected charm of that je ne sais quoi nuance of individuality that truly does make someone arrestingly beautiful in a memorable way.

What once was foot mutilation has become the mutilation of individuality in today’s uniform fashion sensibilities that dictate the market’s cohesive trend followers. It can be found in the faces of today’s young adults who willingly embrace and invest in the “Wang Hong” (internet celebrities who, in this case, are getting plastic surgery) phenomenon to achieve contemporary social standards. “Big eyes, a shaved jaw, possibly cheek implants and a nose job? Why not?” says a growing demographic. Nonetheless, with this social conformity comes a cost. This is an identity crisis that is likely to make facial recognition a tough sell for the new iPhone8 and, in time, today’s socially acceptable norms will come to be the same relic that foot binding is as the country’s society continues to evolve.

The socially detrimental values that underlie this historic practice continue to endure, dictating the continuation of narrow beauty ideals to this very day.

Laurel Bossen for HuffPo
Indoors weaving and spinning the wheel. Courtesy of Laurel Bossen for Huffington Post

If anything, foot binding provides a powerful parallel offering a historic reflection on the cost of attaining beauty standards that cannot be reversed without giving the irreversible procedures required to get there any deep, let alone critical, thought.

When examined through this lens, the story becomes somewhat more clear when we consider how an superficially aesthetic, as the physical pain of foot binding was likely deemed to be irrelevant, society at-large was not self-reflective about collectively dashing off a cliff. Rarely thought about or spoken of in today’s society, the socially detrimental values that underlie this historic practice continue to endure, dictating the continuation of narrow beauty ideals to this very day.

For those who continue to be interested in the topic, there are variety of ways to look deeper into this fastly fading history from Jo Farrell’s book and photography project “Living History” to Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates’ 2017 economic look at the practice “Bound Feet, Young Hands: Tracking the Demise of Footbinding in Village China”. You can listen to a podcast or visit Toronto’s Bata Shoe museum to check out their collection which includes lotus shoes. Or dip into fiction with Lisa See’s book “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”.

 

When taken less than literally, foot binding can be a powerful lens to re-examine Chinese society and our own social norms. What is acceptable in our countries or today that through the changing looking glass of time that will become the future form of barbaric behavior? An interesting question to ask that makes the history of the practice more than a mere shock factor or an automatic judgment of rejection through the changes of time. If there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that, sometimes, beauty is the beast.