Foot binding (also known as "Lotus feet") is the custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth. The practice possibly originated among upper-class court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in Imperial China (10th or 11th century), but spread in the Song Dynasty and eventually became common among all but the lowest of classes. Foot binding became popular as a means of displaying status (women from wealthy families who did not need them to work could afford to have their feet bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture.
The Manchu Emperor Kangxi tried to ban footbinding in 1664 but failed. In the 1800s (19th century), Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out, partly from changing social conditions and partly as a result of anti-foot binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, and some elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities related to their bound feet.
The practice of foot binding became popular during the Song Dynasty. By the end of the Song Dynasty, it was customary for men to drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan Dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself. The practice was called "toast to the golden lotus" and lasted until the late Qing Dynasty.
Bound feet became a mark of beauty and was also a prerequisite for finding a husband. It also became an avenue for poorer women to marry into money; for example, in Guangdong in the late 19th century, it was customary to bind the feet of the eldest daughter of a lower-class family who was intended to be brought up as a lady. Her younger sisters would grow up to be bond-servants or domestic slaves and, when old enough, either the concubines of rich men or the wives of laboring men, able to work in the fields alongside them. In contrast, the tiny, narrow feet of the "ladies" were considered beautiful and made a woman's movements more feminine and dainty, and it was assumed these eldest daughters would never need to work. Women, their families, and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about 8 centimetres (3 in) long. This pride was reflected in the elegantly embroidered silk slippers and wrappings girls and women wore to cover their feet. Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered erotic to men.
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. The fact that the bound foot was concealed from men's eyes was considered to be sexually appealing. On the other hand, an uncovered foot would also give off a foul odour, as various saprobic microorganisms would colonize the unwashable folds.
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. Additionally a common male fantasy was that the unusual gait tended to strengthen the vaginal muscles.
An attribute of a woman with bound feet was the limitation of her mobility, and therefore, her inability to take part in politics, social life and the world. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, and 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.
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. Cotton bandages, 3 m long and 5 cm wide (10 ft by 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.
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 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 around 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 together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath.
The girl's broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injury, and the nails carefully and meticulously trimmed. When unbound, the broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl's feet were often beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. The feet were also soaked in a concoction that caused any necrotic flesh to fall off.
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; although, this was seen as a benefit because 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, and a surviving girl was more at risk for medical problems as she grew older.
At the beginning 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. Even after the foot bones had healed, they were prone to re-breaking repeatedly, especially when the girl was in her teenage years 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.