Anthropology: Foot Binding as Symbolism of Socio-Economic Status in Ancient China

Foot Binding: Symbols of Fashion, Femininity, Food & Fortune

Dunked into a bath of animal blood and herbs, the toes are squeezed against the palm of the foot until they are broken. A piece of cloth is bound tightly around the mangled foot. It is packaged so tightly that even a small wiggle of the toes is near impossible. Broken then bound, tugged and squeezed, oozing with pus and holding back tears. This foot binding process is repeated year after year until the feet become numb, small and ‘feminine’… perfectly bound. The natural ‘Golden Lotus’ symbol given to feet that have undergone this brutal and inhumane practice seems out of place.

Young girl sits with bound feet
Image Source: Chinese Customs – Indelible Photographs via Wikimedia

 

A lotus foot on an old woman
Disfigured feet of a Chinese woman – Image Source: GettyImages

Brief Origins

According to Yao Lingxi’s Records of Gathering Fragrance, foot binding gained popularity during the Song dynasty from the 10th century. Da Yu, the Xia dynasty founder, married a woman described as a fox fairy with tiny, delicate feet. The king of Zhou (the last ruler of the Shang dynasty) had a concubine who was said to be a fox sent from heaven. The fox transformed herself into a beautiful woman but was unable to change her feet, so she bound them tightly in cloth. With mothers passing the practice onto their daughters, foot binding became an established tradition. Tied to the values of a woman’s pride in domesticity, the custom became a traditional symbol of the female identity. However, as these values gradually shifted at the dawn of the modern age, foot binding began to see its demise. The practice was outlawed shortly after the Nationalist Revolution in 1912, although it remained widespread until around 1949 with the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

Bound lotus feet
Image Source: https://granta.com/on-high-heels-and-lotus-feet/

Foot Binding as an Embellishment of the Body

In the late sixteenth century, foot binding was understood as a female attire – an adornment – rather than a form of painful bodily mutilation. Ironically, despite physically taking away a portion of the visible foot, the practice was meant to embellish and add something to women’s bodies. Foot binding was even written into encyclopedias, defined as bodily decoration under a ‘female adornments’ section. The creation of an arch in the foot gave the illusion of an elongated leg. By wearing special high-heeled lotus shoes, the legs stilt-like formation crafted an image of thinness and height, raising the body above the dirt in an outwardly effortless display of beauty.

Court dancer Yao Niang – the first foot-binder to carve her feet into the shape of a new moon – was praised for her dancing on the golden lotus. Her performance was likened to floating on water or clouds; this became a popular metaphor used to describe the gait of bound feet in Chinese literature. Excruciating years of brutally torn flesh and snapping bones were masked behind tiny lotus shoes. They were delicately shaped like lily petals and finished with beautiful embroidery. The embellishment of the feet into small and respectable knobs laced in extravagant materials was seen to conquer decay. They represented an eternal beauty.

In her book ‘Aching for Beauty’, Wang Ping contrasts lotus feet to the more fragile beauty of unconcealed body parts; ‘a beautiful face may wrinkle, and a slender body may become flat and saggy, whereas a pair of lotus feet keep their charm as long as the woman lives.’ Removing the shoe would spoil the most perfect display of beauty, and so the mask must embrace the foot forever. The feet stayed inside the shoes at all times, even when the pungent odours of dirt and blood leaked through the dressings. In a contrasting image of concealment and beauty, the mask of elegant imagery (silk embroidered shoes and dreamy ‘walking on clouds’ metaphors) ­­disguised the more sinister image of mutilated toes.

Tiny embroidered lotus shoes
Image Source: Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (Dorothy Ko)

Foot Binding through a Gendered Lens

The mask of beauty and embellishment achieved through lotus feet disguises not only the decay of toes and flesh but also a more complex narrative of politics and gender in ancient China. In 1934, Sociologist Thorstein Veblen said the practice of foot binding was wasteful. Women surrendered their freedom as a gesture to denote status in a male world. Sigmund Freud (1927) said that by mutilating their feet, women appeased the castration anxieties of men. Indeed, foot binding as a feminine symbol was seen to construct a woman who was more delicate, more restrained and more inactive. This allowed men to secure dominance, permitting their personal refinement without criticism of appearing too effeminate.

The painful experience of trauma at a young age altered a woman’s sense of her body as she moved through her social space. Unknowingly suspended in a harsh mental trial, the young girl had to relearn how to walk and how to be. This forced her into a speedy physical and social maturation. Along with their feet’ moulding, this early development allowed women’s identities to be moulded in preparation for their expected loyalty and obedience towards their husbands.

Anthropology: Discipline and Surveillance – Similarities between Chinese Foot Binding and Western Gender Ideals

A comparison may be drawn between the modern Western surveillance of women’s bodies and the surveillance of women in relation to foot binding in ancient China. The rise of technology in Western culture has been met with increased surveillance of women’s bodies through expectations created by the perfect magazine woman. Self-surveillance has become infectiously rooted in the minds of females who constantly monitor their bodies through diet, medical procedures and enhancements, in order to fit the constricted mould of what a patriarchal society deems acceptable.

Perhaps not too dissimilar from this, foot binding was a practice that required relentless discipline. From the early stages of a young girl’s life, when her feet are first broken through to adulthood, the feet must be repeatedly bound and rebound, snapped and smothered by bloody bandages to achieve the ‘golden lotus’ ideal. The drastic and painful reduction in the size of the girl’s feet happened just as they were developing. This trapped the growing woman in a little girl’s body and limited her movement as she went out into the world. She became small, contained and feminine, bent to the will of male authority.

Young girl has foot binding procedure
Image Source: Lotus Film (via deepfocusproductions.com)

In ancient China, it was thought that a woman with a smaller foot was a more valuable bride. Despite the way that bound feet physically reduced movement, they were symbols of possibility and potential; smaller feet meant higher chances of movement in terms of social advancement. Mothers would inform their daughters that foot binding was a necessity in finding a good family to marry into. In fact, binding was deemed as essential for a woman as learning was for a man. This is reflected in the old Chinese saying, ‘If you love your son, you don’t go easy on his studies. If you love your daughter, you don’t go easy on her foot binding’.

The generational script was this: a woman’s attractiveness is revealed by her bound feet, not her natural face or physique. The woman’s disabled feet liberated her from youth and allowed her to marry. Ironically, however, it also created a dependency on her family. With this, the foot-bound woman was said to come to terms with her primary function in society. This gendered role reduced to the body was reproduction. Although this gender norm doesn’t seem to dominate the lives of women in modern Western society, the representation of females in magazines and entertainment challenges this. Female bodies are still exemplified in the media through an intense focus on sexualised body parts. There have been many analyses on the representation of women as domesticated, inferior bodies. They are often positioned in the background to enhance a household product or a central male figure.

Think about this: if tiny and moulded feet were to re-emerge as fashionable in today’s Western societies, would women find themselves enthralled in the temptation of a surgical foot binding process?

Modern day foot binding
Surgical Foot Procedure – Image Source: The Wall Street Journal

Foot Binding and Food

It is an odd pairing of words: foot binding and food. But it makes sense once the lotus foot is imagined within the culinary realm. In Chinese culture, cooking is symbolic of the transformation of nature into culture. Metaphorically, foot binding ‘cooks’ the raw female body part into a product to be consumed and fetishized for indulgence. Moulding the foot was said to restrain the uncontrollable female sexuality. Likening bound feet to food ‘cooked’ natural flesh into spirit and culture. In the case of both foot binding and cooking, shaping raw material into a final compressed product involves violence.

Bound Feet Described as Foods

Symbolically referring to bound feet as foods fetishized them. Words used to describe the tiny feet include bamboo shoot, dumpling, water chestnut, red beans, and of course, golden lotus. Even the marketing of lotus shoes employed food to aid sales. One shop in old Beijing used rice as an instrument of measurement for purchase. Rather than asking for a shoe size, the customer handed a small bag of rice to the shop assistant. The rice was poured into the desired shoe, and if it filled the shoe to the brim, the shoe size was right.

Golden Lotus Flower
A Golden Lotus – Image Source: kriyayogaaustralia.com 

Foot Binding as a Symbol of Social Class and Fortune

Foot binding in Ancient China was more than just a fashionable trend, it has much more socio-economic anthropological significance. In its early uses, it was a symbol of social class and fortune. After being inspired by a tenth-century court dancer who bound her feet into the shape of a new moon, other wealthy women started binding their feet. The tiny foot was transformed into a status symbol among the elite and the ‘golden lotus’ became a treasured emblem of wealth.

Girls who had their feet bound from a young age held great social currency. They had more potential to move upwards in the Chinese social hierarchy. When families predicted that their daughters could marry into a rich family, they would bind the girl’s feet more tightly. They would also start earlier than they would if their daughters were needed for outdoor agricultural labour. During the earlier stages of the tradition, bound feet were considered a vibrant display of family wealth.

Foot Binding as a Symbol of Wealth Declines

While early records of foot binding among the lower classes were less common, over time, the practice spread throughout China. Although it was once popular only among the upper classes, women from all areas in the social hierarchy began to bind their feet during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Even peasants bound their feet, despite the fact that it made farm labour and work around the house more difficult.

Group of girls with bound feet
Image Source: GBTimes

Significance in Anthropology

The detailed histories and meanings of foot binding that circulate in social and academic discussions today offer varying perspectives. But we cannot assume that what we know is entirely accurate; we were not there. By interpreting the available stories and evidence, one thing we might reflect on is this:

As a symbol that both fascinates and repels, the lotus foot is more than just an ancient trend. It stands as a solidifier of divisions: men and women, raw and refined, high-class and low-class.

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