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Three-inch golden lotus: the practice of foot binding

Behind the “lotus feet” is the oppressed life of women in olden days


Three-inch golden lotus: the practice of foot binding

Behind the “lotus feet” is the oppressed life of women in olden days


Maybe you have heard the term “three-inch golden lotus (三寸金莲)”, but how many of you know that it refers to women’s small feet? Of course, “lotus” is a metaphor, but the “three-inch” is not. In ancient times, women had their feet tightly bound at the age of four or five to control further growth. Depending on their sizes, feet were granted different titles: All bound feet were called “lotus”, but those bigger than four inches were “iron lotuses”, four inches were “silver lotuses”, and the three-inch ones were called “golden lotuses”(about eight centimeters), which was apparently the highest ranking.

Though the old aesthetic views regarded bound feet as a mask of beauty, it led to lifelong disability and extreme pain for most of its subjects. Behind the tiny feet wrapped in exquisitely embroidered shoes was a bloody cruel practice, imposed on millions of innocent young girls.

The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 9. First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood 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. 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 started at the instep of the foot, 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 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 this, they were still prone to re-breaking repeatedly, especially if the girl was in her teenage years and her feet were still soft.

Apart from the bone-breaking pain, the most common problem was infection. The tightness of the binding meant that circulation in the feet was faulty, and circulation to the toes was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were unlikely to heal, gradually worsening, and leading to infected toes and rotting flesh.

It is really difficult for modern people to accept or even understand such a brutal torture, but in old times, bound feet were considered a symbol of status. Women with such broken feet could not undertake heavy work, which denoted that her family could afford to have a work-free daughter or wife.

There are many suggestions for its origins. It was mostly said that this practice started among upper-class court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and then spread and eventually became common among all but the classes in Song dynasty. By the 19th century, it was estimated that 40-50% of Chinese women had bound feet, and among upper class Han Chinese women, the figure was almost 100%.

Bound feet were also a prerequisite for women looking to marry. On some degree, it was men’s obsession with those feet that led to such a custom, though no evidence of sexual attractiveness can be found. By the end of the Song Dynasty, men would drink from a special shoe whose heel contained a small cup. During the Yuan dynasty, some would also drink directly from the shoe itself.

Pathetically but unsurprisingly, in a male-dominated society, it seemed that everything about women were supposed to please men. Bound feet were no exception. With their feet bound, women could only bend their knees and walk on tiny steps with a slight sway, which was erotic to men. A literature work Occasional Notes with Leisure Motions in Qing Dynasty even wrote down 48 ways to play with women’s small feet. But because many men preferred never to face those unpleasant feet directly, women always hid their feet in tiny shoes. The fact that women would prevent their bound feet from being seen by men was also considered sexually appealing. In such circumstances, big-footed women were looked down upon and struggled to find husbands.

This foot binding even led to competition. In the lunar June, there was a feet competition held in the community. On that day, women’s feet would be exhibited and graded by people. These kinds of occurrences were not uncommon during a time when women were largely objectified.

More importantly, foot binding also served as a means of male control over women. With their feet bound, women were largely restricted from social activities, and could only live at home, rely on men, and were powerless to resist such gender inequity.

The bondage did not only happen to women’s feet, but also to their minds. When anti-foot binding campaigns occurred, the fiercest objection came from women themselves. The fight for foot release lasted for a long time and many reformers kept challenging this custom. In Qing Dynasty, Emperor Kangxi tried to ban foot binding in 1664 but failed. In 1874, 60 Christian women in Xiamen called for an end to the practice and it was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement in 1883. Then Kang Youwei founded the first Anti-Footbinding Society to combat the practice. In 1912, the new Republic of China government banned foot binding.

Such things did not go well at first. Though well-educated women began to stop binding feet, in the lower-class society, people still valued bound feet. Many old women firmly insisted that women were supposed to experience feet binding, and if they avoided, they would be punished later. Many families still had their girls foot bound in private because they worried about her ability to find a husband. Even after the government published their bans, many female students still bound their feet but wore big shoes to escape from checks in school. In some places, since the bans only worked on single girls, many families rashly found a husband for their girls before they were forced to release their bound feet.

Ironically, just as foot binding prevailed, the final victory of foot releasing was also influenced by men. As modern culture developed in China, men’s aesthetic taste changed. Many of them began to expect an educated and socialized wife, and the bound feet became shameful. With social conditions changed, in early 20th century, foot binding gradually died out in China.

But even today, you can still find some elderly women with bound feet. Look at their deformed feet, maybe one can imagine the miserable oppressed life as a woman in old times.


Feel that women were treated unfairly back then? Find out how things have change (or not) in today’s society.