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Painful Process of Chinese Foot Binding

Foot binding – also referred to as “Lotus feet” is the practice of applying painfully tight wrapping or ‘binding’ to the feet of very young girls to cease further growth.

What is Foot binding?

The feet have also been called ‘three inch lilies’, whereby they didn’t exceed three inches in length. For a man, the lady appeared dainty and innocently feminine which therefore increased sexual appetite. However, foot binding was a painful process which began when a young girl was around five years old – one can only imagine the cruelty for a girl so young, or any age for that matter.

Bound Feet

It began with a bandage two inches wide and ten feet long which was wrapped around the foot so the arch was compressed and four smaller toes curved underneath. The foot was then wrestled into a shoe many sizes too small to facilitate the binding, therefore stopping further growth. Over a period of time (generally 2 years) tighter bandages and smaller shoes were worn – the result being ‘beautiful’ three inch lilies. Of course things naturally went wrong as bones broke and sometimes fell off, feet became infected, developed puss-filled sores and in extreme cases became gangrenous resulting in death.

Foot binding began with dancers in China, but later as a means of marking status for women from affluent families to show they could afford not to work by having this painful process completed. From here it was adopted as a symbol of beauty which became common practice within Chinese culture. The result for women being lifelong disabilities for most and some elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities relating to their bound feet.

Bound Feet

When I lived in China, foot binding was a thing of the past and although I didn’t have access to be surrounded by elderly people suffering from this cruel process, I did meet one lady in rural Kunming who had bound feet. She was 93 about 8 years ago and I imagine has passed now. She lived in dug-out rooms underground with one central courtyard, whilst her family had moved into western-style homes nearby. She was discovered by the company I worked for and was visited by tourist groups whom she welcomed in, fielding questions honestly and openly via her son who translated. Her feet were three inches in length and although she didn’t take her shoes off, carried a body of weight which an elderly person does. When I visited her, she made me think of a very different time before the Communist rule of Chairman Mao, but for her certainly not forgotten.


Foot Binding

Below is a picture of her hand, crafted and weathered by a long life which has survived the many changing faces of Chinese history. Her hands intrigued me more than her feet which were so cruelly inflicted upon her from a young age. Her hands revealed the lines of life, similar to what you would find if you cut open a tree trunk and told the real story of a women who had lived to a ripe age, surviving the Communist regime, farming life, drought, famine and having to do it all with bound feet. Her face lit up with a glorious smile when she was visited by a group eager of foreigners, eager to hear about her life growing up, and old in China!

Happy travelling!


If you fancy reading some of my other Asia articles, click the links below:
Getting naked in Japan – you guide to naked bathing
Hiking the Great Wall of China
Wearing India like a badge of honour
Karni Mata – temple of rats
Up early with the birds for Tsukili Fish market in Tokyo
The Travellers Pursuit of Happiness


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