Footbinding Develops in Chinese Society

The painful custom of footbinding was practiced for a thousand years in China. The bound foot was an object of erotic worship and defined feminine beauty. The custom also reflected Confucian social values and helped keep women in a subordinate social position.

Summary of Event

“Footbinding” pertains to the Chinese custom of using wrapped bandages or gauze strips to retard the natural development of a female’s feet. It was practiced mainly by the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group named after the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). Usually, between the ages of four and eight, a young girl would receive the initial wrappings by her mother. A few years later, the feet would be bound so as to bend all toes, except the big toe, under and into the sole. The sole and heel were forced as close together as possible. After a year of extreme pain, the feet would become numb. To keep the feet tiny, the binding continued throughout the woman’s life. Special shoes for bound feet were called gilded lilies(jinlian), arched shoes(gongxie), and embroidered slippers (xiuxie). [kw]Footbinding Develops in Chinese Society (c. 1000)
[kw]Chinese Society, Footbinding Develops in (c. 1000)
China;c. 1000: Footbinding Develops in Chinese Society[1380]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1000: Footbinding Develops in Chinese Society[1380]
Health and medicine;c. 1000: Footbinding Develops in Chinese Society[1380]
Li Yu

The exact origin of footbinding has been controversial. Chinese folklore and oral tradition provide many origin myths. According to one story, a Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 b.c.e.) empress had a clubfoot, which made compressed feet a standard of beauty. In another version, the empress was actually a fox in human disguise, who had to hide her paws. A variation of this presents the fox as Da Ji, the favorite concubine of the king of Zhou, the last Shang emperor. Da Ji, who had been been sent by the gods to destroy the corrupt kingdom, hid her fox’s feet by wrapping them in cloth.

The “golden lotus” was invented by the ruler of the state of Qi (Ch’i) and the marquis of Donghun, Xiao Baojuan Xiao Baojuan (Hsiao Pao-chüan; r. 499-501). He created gilded gold lotus petals on the floor and had his concubine, Pan, walk on them, each step resembling a lotus. Later, “golden lotus” became a poetic metaphor for bound feet.

Glorification of small feet was evident in a Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) tale that appeared in the Chinese anthology, Yuyangzu (c. 850-860). This story about Yexian (Yen-shen), the Chinese Cinderella, was based on an oral tradition of cave dwellers in southern China, possibly in Yongzhou in Guangxi Province. The tale relates that before the first imperial dynasty, the Qin (Ch’in, 221-206 b.c.e.), there lived a chieftain called Wu-the-Cave. His first wife, Yexian’s mother, died, and his new wife was cruel to Yexian. After escaping from a party, Yexian dropped a beautiful golden slipper, which the cave people sold to the Tuohan king. The slipper was too small for anyone in his kingdom. Finally, the king found Yexian, whose tiny foot could fit into the slipper, and he married her.

A Chinese girl with bound feet (San Francisco, California). The practice continued well into the twentieth century.

(Library of Congress)

The most precise and accepted account of the beginning of footbinding appears in the twelfth century writings of Zhang Bangji Zhang Bangji (Chang Panchi), who asserted that footbinding did not begin earlier than in the court of the sovereign poet Li Yu Li Yu (Southern Tang emperor) , the last ruler of the Southern Tang Southern Tang Dynasty kingdom (937-975), one of the kingdoms in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China) period (907-960). Li Yu built a six-foot (two-meter) tall, gold-gilded lotus flower as a dance platform for his favorite concubine, Yaoniang Yaoniang . He ordered her to bind her feet with strips of cloth into the shape of a crescent moon and then dance in the lotus flower. Small bound feet soon became fashionable among the court women and an object of erotic attention.

Archaeological evidence verifies that in the thirteenth century, footbinding was practiced among upper-class women in southern China, during the the Southern Song Dynasty (Sung, 1127-1279). In 1975, the tomb of Lady Huang Sheng Huang Sheng (1227-1243) was discovered in the southern coastal city of Fuzhou, Fujian Province. In her tomb were tiny shoes, each with an upturned big toe and ranging in size from 5.25 to 5.5 inches by 1.75 to 2 inches (13.3 to 14 centimeters by 4.4 to 5 centimeters). A similar pair of shoes belonging to Lady Luo Shuangshuang Luo Shuangshuang , the first wife of a scholar, Shi Shengzu (d. 1274), was discovered in his tomb in Quzhou, north of Fuzhou. Years later, seven pairs of tiny shoes belonging to Madame Zhou Zhou, Madame (1240-1274) were discovered in a tomb in De’an, northwest of Fuzhou and Quzhou.

Therefore, footbinding, which began among imperial dancers in the tenth century, had spread to the upper class by the thirteenth century and was used to restrict women to their homes. During the Song Dynasty, neo-Confucianism Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism];women and
Women;Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] and conservative views of marriage prevailed. Zhu Xi Zhu Xi (Chi Hsi; 1130-1200), the great Song philosopher, endorsed footbinding as a means of promoting the separation of men and women in southern Fujian.

Beginning in the Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty;women
Women;Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the Mongol dynasty founded by Kublai Khan, footbinding was an indicator of upper-class or aristocratic status. Also, according to a Yuan treatise, bound feet guaranteed female chastity.

Footbinding became even more popular during the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty;women
Women;Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The custom was officially sanctioned and glorified in Ming literature. The footbinding process itself revolved around festival days or Daoist auspicious days and numerous other superstitions and customs. In addition, the “golden lotus” had become a prerequisite to a proper marriage, beginning with elaborate bridal shoes embroidered with sayings regarding good fortune.


During the Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911), the Manchu rulers were opposed to footbinding and attempted repeatedly to ban the practice, but their restrictive policy only caused the practice to become even more widespread. However, there were other forces at work that gradually helped abolish footbinding. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many Chinese leaders were fighting for women’s rights. Jing hua yuan (1810-1820; Flowers in the Mirror, 1965), the famous novel by Li Ruzhen (Li Juchen), vividly exposes the pain and humiliation of footbinding. The plot follows the travel of a merchant to a kingdom in which the sex roles are reversed, and submissive men have crippled, bound feet. In the late nineteenth century, foreign missionaries and liberal reformers openly criticized footbinding, and international condemnation spurred Chinese intellectuals to action.

Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, antifootbinding sentiment was widespread within larger movements for gender equality and modernization. In 1894, philosopher and reform leader Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei) started the Unbound Foot Association in Canton. Soon, natural-foot societies were everywhere, holding mass meetings and publishing literature and songs. In 1902, the empress dowager issued an imperial decree against footbinding. Although of a voluntary nature, it gave respectability to the natural-foot movement.

When the Nationalist government overthrew the last Chinese monarchy in 1911 and established the Republic of China (1911-1949), it banned footbinding completely. Although it was still practiced in some areas until the beginning of the Communist regime in 1949, many developments in Chinese society favored natural feet. Western-educated young men did not want old-fashioned women with bound feet, and more women became educated.

Originally a way of enhancing dance in the imperial court of the tenth century, footbinding eventually spread to even peasants. Although tortuous and unnatural, it was a popular tradition passed from mother to young daughter. The “lotus blossom” symbolized women’s subservience to men in a Confucian society as the physical crippling helped restrict women to their homes. At the same time, the tiny feet represented feminine beauty and sensuality. For a thousand years, it profoundly defined and affected Chinese women’s lives.

Further Reading

  • Drucker, Alison. “The Influence of Western Women on the Anti-Footbinding Movement, 1840-1911.” In Women in China: Current Directions in Historical Scholarship, edited by Richard Guisso. Youngstown, Pa.: Philo Press, 1981. Looks at the influence of Western women on the tradition of footbinding.
  • Hong, Fan. Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China. London: Frank Cass, 1997. With an emphasis on social and cultural history and women’s rights, this book shows the relationship between women’s exercise and emancipation, including from footbinding, in modern China. Includes some illustrations and photographs, and extensive chapter notes.
  • Jackson, Beverley. Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1997. A detailed account of the thousand-year history of footbinding, including Chinese folklore and comparisons with practices in other cultures. Contains numerous color photographs.
  • Ko, Dorothy. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Well-researched presentation of footbinding in terms of material culture and women’s status and identity in society. Presents the different view that footbinding was actually a source of pride, power, and identity for women. Includes beautiful illustrations and photos throughout the book, including color photos of shoes from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
  • Levy, Howard S. The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China. 1966. Reprint. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992. The first complete treatment of the subject for the Western reader. Based on research into primary Chinese sources, this book includes more than one hundred photos and drawings, extensive notes, and a bibliography.
  • Wang, Ping. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Includes a detailed chapter on the history of footbinding, with many references to literature. Generally, this book examines the subject in the context of history, literature, linguistics, and psychoanalysis.