The Peculiar History of Foot Binding in China

How ten centuries of Chinese women submitted to the painful practice—and how it finally went out of fashion.
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For around ten centuries, successive generations of Chinese women endured a practice when, as children, their feet were systematically broken and shaped in such a way that they resembled hooves. The tradition, known as foot binding, eventually came to symbolize China's backwardness, a relic from the country's distant past.

But despite the efforts of reformists, foot binding persisted well into the 20th century. In the January 1923 issue of The Atlantic, Pearl Buck (whose book The Good Earth is one of the most influential ever written about China) described meeting a young woman who had recently decided to unbind her feet in accordance with the latest fashion:

Yesterday she came in a delicate blue satin of a more fashionable cut than I had ever seen; her feet were unbound and in little clumping, square, black-leather foreign shoes. She was evidently very proud of them; they looked like shoes for a very rough little American boy, and had steel taps on the heels. They stuck out most oddly from her exquisite brocaded skirt.

After we had exchanged polite remarks, and had taken our first sip of tea, she was so evidently conscious of her feet that I could not but comment on her unusual footgear.

“It is the very latest fashion,” she replied with great satisfaction. “You know that, of course, in the big cities like Peking and Shanghai, the really fashionable girls do not bind their feet any more. At the boarding-school they don’t either; and so, when I came home, I cried for three days, without food, until for peace they unbound my feet so that I might wear these beautiful American shoes. My feet are still too small, but I stuff cotton in the toes.”

What exactly are bound feet, and why did they become such an enduring part of the Chinese world? To get a little more information, I talked to Wang Ping, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Macalaster College and the author of Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China, a 2002 history of the practice. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:

When—and why—did the practice of foot binding begin?

The first recorded binding occurred in the Five Dynasties and Ten States period in the 10th century. According to the story, an emperor had a favorite concubine, a dancer who built a gilded stage in the shape of a lotus flower. When she bound her feet into a hoof-like shape and danced on the lotus, the practice became very fashionable; after all, she was the emperor's favorite concubine and the other concubines attempted to imitate her in order to gain the emperor's favor. So foot binding started with the royal court and then spread throughout China, beginning in the south of the country and soon reaching the north.

In the 12th century, foot binding had become much more widespread, and by the early Qing Dynasty (in the mid-17th century), every girl who wished to marry had her feet bound.  The only people who didn't bind their feet were the very poor, ethnic Hakka people, and women who worked in fishing because they had needed to have normal feet in order to balance themselves on boats. 

At what age did girls get their feet bound? What did the practice entail?

Girls would have their feet bound between the ages of four and six; any younger, the girls couldn't endure the pain, and by the time they were older than six their feet had already grown too large. Four to six was the ideal age because you could reason with the girls and help them deal with the pain. Foot binding would occur in a ritualistic ceremony accompanied by other traditions intending to ward of bad luck.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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