foot bindingGolden lilies, idyllic bound feet of women and girls, were the erotic hallmarks of feminine China for one thousand years.  Yet, to practice the custom meant enduring the excruciating pain of mutilation and even the threat of death should the binding be improperly applied.  The following offerings relate facts and trivia about the fascinating and controversial ancient custom of foot binding.

Foot binding has been dated to the middle of the tenth century when it was confined to the royal and upper most classes.  By the seventeenth century the practice spread to millions of Chinese women from many social and economic classes.

An ancient ballerina called Precious Thing is credited with boasting the first bound feet.  The dance and ribbons swirling from her legs and feet led to the erotic tradition.

Footbinding was generally practiced from mother to daughter.  Girls who could boast of bound feet were more marriageable.  While foot binding rendered a woman incapable of work, her complete dependence her husband was a great status symbol for him.

Not all the tribes of China practiced foot binding.  The Manchu, Hakka and women of the Tanka settlement of Guangdong did not.  However, the vast majority of Chinese are of the Han ethnic group who believed that a Chinese girl without bound feet could not get a decent husband.

The ideal length of a bound foot was three inches or under.  Only a foot with this measurement could be termed a “golden lily.”  Achieving this size meant that the arch of the foot would have to be broken and all the toes except for the biggest needed to be folded under the foot.  Bound feet that did not attain the smallest sizes might be called silver or iron lilies which would have been insulting to the girl.

Girls needed to be about five or six to begin the foot binding.  The custom varied among different parts of the country.  At this age the bones are more pliable.  Mothers opted to begin binding in the fall with the belief that the cold weather would help numb the child’s feet during the first difficult months.

Foot binding was a major family event.  Women would often travel great distances to attend their extended family during this trying period.   Often a mother would do the actual binding.  Sometimes a mother-in-law would perform the rite-it was not uncommon for girls of this age to be married or betrothed.  Sometimes women skilled at binding would be invited to perform the task.

The process entailed a hot water soaking initially to soften the skin.  Herbs, roots or special ancestral recipes might be added to the water.  In Datong of Shanxi Province a girl’s feet would be stuffed into the sliced stomach of a lamb.

Binding the feet called for bandages approximately ten feet long.  Often the bindings would be soaked so that they would shrink as they dried to actually bind the feet tighter.
Sewing the bandages was necessary sometimes to keep them in place.  After the binding the girl was required to walk on her feet.

Binding and rebinding the feet was a long process that took about two years to complete.  Washing and inspecting were done constantly as infection could kill the child if it spread. 

While it is a well-known fact that men believed the little feet to be erotically stimulating, they were actually not permitted to view the naked foot; they merely saw the enticingly small foot decorated with the little silken and embroidered shoes.  In some ways, foot binding might be considered a shoe fetish.

The initiators of the Taiping Rebellion tried to ban foot binding, but the practice was still continued well into the twentieth century.  Today, it the foot binding is seldom practiced.  But many of China’s older women still suffer from the pain of their disability.