Many people have looked at beautifully decorated silk shoes from China and wondered if they were for a child or a doll. They are surprised to find that these pairs of shoes, some of which are only a little over three inches in length were actually meant to be worn by grown women. But how could a woman get her feet that small? Extremely small feet were achieved through a process known as foot binding.
Foot binding was first practiced in about the 10th century. The process was a lengthy and dangerous one and many girls actually died from having their feet bound. The arch was often broken and the toes folded underneath and bound into place. This was started before a girl’s feet had time to fully form. The average age that girls began the process was anywhere from four to seven years of age. If a girl was lucky, the process would be performed during the winter. Cold weather could numb the feet and help to ease some of the pain.
The process of binding the feet to make them as small as possible would take years to complete. They were unwrapped often and cared for. It was not uncommon for gangrene to set in and for the flesh to rot in some areas. Foot care took place daily in rich families but may have only taken place once or twice a week in families that were less financially well off.
The ideal length for a woman’s foot was three inches long. Women who had longer feet were often considered less desirable and may not have been able to marry as well as women with perfectly bound feet. A woman who had her feet bound could walk on them although it was difficult. In fact, women who were from a higher social class were often more likely to have their feet bound since it showed that the family was affluent enough to afford servants.
There have been many stories that explained the origin of foot binding. One legend states that Yao-niang, a consort of the ruler Li Yu had performed a dance on feet that had been wrapped in silk cloth. This type of foot wrapping was very similar to the toe shoes that ballet dancers wear today. It became desirable to have feet shaped like a crescent moon.
Although it was believed that all women in China had bound feet this was not always the case. Some ethnic groups only bound feet enough to narrow them and did not break the bones in any way. Manchu women did not have their feet bound at all after the year 1644 due to the fact that the Emperor had forbidden it.
Foot binding in some form was practiced for approximately 1000 years. Women who were born as late as the 21st century had their feet bound although the practice was outlawed in 1949. Some women who had bound feet did remove their wrappings but this also caused great pain and left the women disabled. There are still women who are living in China today who have the distinctive small feet that were once so prized for a thousand years.