Foot binding literally "bound feet" was the custom of binding the feet of young girls painfully tight to prevent further growth. The tiny narrow feet were considered beautiful and to make a woman's movements more feminine and dainty. Although reformers challenged the practice, it was not until the early twentieth century that footbinding generally died out, partly from changing social conditions and partly as a result of anti-footbinding campaigns.
The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of two and five.Binding usually started during the winter months so that the feet were numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.
First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. To prepare her for what was to come next, the girl's feet were delicately massaged. Cotton bandages, 3 m long and 5 cm wide (10 ft×2 in), were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture.
To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke. This was all carried out without the use of pain relief, and was excruciatingly painful for the girl being bound. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken.
The actual binding of the feet was then begun. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and round the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel ever close together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath, this would cause the young girl extreme pain.
When the binding was completed, the end of the binding cloth was sewn tightly to prevent the girl from loosening it, and the girl was required to stand on her freshly broken and bound feet to further crush them into shape. As the wet bandages dried, they constricted, making the binding even tighter.
The most common problem with bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl's toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that the circulation in the feet was faulty, and the circulation to the toes was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal and were likely to gradually worsen and lead to infected toes and rotting flesh. If the infection in the feet and toes entered the bones, it could cause them to soften, which could result in toes dropping off—though this was seen as a positive, as the feet could then be bound even more tightly.
Girls whose toes were more fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury and introduce infection deliberately. Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from foot-binding, but a surviving girl was more at risk for medical problems as she grew older. In the early part of the binding, many of the foot bones would remain broken, often for years.
However, as the girl grew older, the bones would begin to heal, although even after the foot bones had healed they were prone to re-breaking repeatedly, especially when the girl was in her teens and her feet were still soft. Older women were more likely to break hips and other bones in falls, since they could not balance securely on their feet, and were less able to rise to their feet from a sitting position.
RECEPTION AND APPEAL
A woman with her feet unwrapped
Bound feet were once considered intensely erotic in Chinese culture, and a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to make a more prestigious marriage.Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet.Some men preferred never to see a woman's bound feet, so they were always concealed within tiny "lotus shoes" and wrappings. Feng Xun is recorded as stating, "If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever" – an indication that men understood that the symbolic erotic fantasy of bound feet did not correspond to its unpleasant physical reality, which was therefore to be kept hidden.
For men, the primary erotic effect was a function of the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. Women with such deformed feet avoided placing weight on the front of the foot and tended to walk predominantly on their heels.
As a result, women who underwent foot-binding walked in a careful, cautious, and unsteady manner.The very fact that the bound foot was concealed from men's eyes was, in and of itself, sexually appealing. On the other hand, an uncovered foot would also give off a foul odor, as various saprobic microorganisms would colonize the unwashable folds.
Another attribute of a woman with bound feet was the limitations of her mobility and, therefore, her inability to take part in politics, social life, and the world at large. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, and, therefore, became an alluring symbol of chastity and male ownership, since a woman was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without an escort or the help of watchful servants.