Footbinding

Chinese folklore attributes the origins of footbinding to a fox who tried to conceal its paws while assuming the human guise of the Shang Empress. Another version suggests that the Empress had a club foot and insisted that all women bind their feet so that hers became the model for beauty in the court

Footbinding began in China during the Song dynasty (10th century) and continued until the end of the Qing dynasty. The practice was formally prohibited in China in 1911 but continued in isolated regions well into the 1930s. In 1998, the last factory to manufacture shoes for women with bound feet (in Harbin, China) ended production.

Mothers bound the feet of their daughters at around 5 years of age and gradually decreased the size of the child's foot over a period of months. The feet were called lotus of gold if they were 3 inches (about 7.5 centimetres) long, silver if they were 4 inches (about 10 centimetres) long or iron if they were more than 4 inches long. Feet became the object of devotion and, eventually, so did shoes. Women made their own shoes and even wore them in bed. The colour of the shoes was important. Red was the most popular colour.

Some men, such as actors or male prostitutes, also bound their feet.

I was born in 1920. My home was located in a small village in Shandong Province, China. My father was a poor peasant. He had three older sisters and one younger brother.

Carrying on the custom from the older generations, my feet were bound when I was six years old. Perhaps a six-year-old girl's feet were the perfect length for binding.

My grandmother took about one metre of white cloth which was woven by herself at home and divided it into three long one-metre strips, then the binding started. She left my big toe, and folded down the rest of the toes under the sole of the foot and then used the strips to tie it in many layers... You can imagine, a six-year-old girl's feet and how delicate they were, but if they were tied very tightly and changed the natural shape, how painful it must be... With the pain of the feet, I was forced to push around a big rock used as a mill for grinding. I walked and walked, step by step, many, many circuits in order to form the binding cone shape and to make the process more efficient. The suffering is really beyond people's imagination.

A few years later, the Revolutionary Party broke into the unenlightened village. The members of the Party spread the idea of revolution which included women's liberation. They tried to stop men wearing plaits and women's feet binding. They went to every house and checked and forced the girls whose feet had been bound to remove the strips of cloth. Before they came in the house, my grandmother unbound my feet and my sisters' feet, but once the people left the house, my grandmother rebound our feet again.

When the feet were unbound, my sisters and I cried, because of the pain which was caused by the unbinding. But when my grandmother rebound our feet, it would be more painful and we cried again.

My sisters and I endured the pain and gradually unbound our feet. We got rid of the long strips first and wore a pair of very tight cloth socks instead. Gradually the feet started to grow again. When I married in 1942, my feet had already become jie fang jiao (liberated feet).

I used to watch my feet carefully. They are much smaller than average. I am 1.7 metres tall but my feet are only 22 centimetres long. The big toe seems normal, but the rest of the toes are very flat and folded down under the sole of the foot. There are some small scars between the instep and the toes. The scars were made when my feet were first bound, the bone of the toes were broken and became inflamed, so the scars remained until now. The pain has gone a long time ago.

I now live in Beijing and enjoy helping to look after my grandchildren and decorating my house with beautiful flowers.

Mrs Sun Mei Ting, 79, Beijing (Story told by Mrs Sun Mei Ting and translated by her daughter Ms Li Chao Huang)

In Zhong Shan, China, they used long bandages of cotton cloth for binding women's feet. Women couldn't walk but hobble.

Mavis Yen

Uncle Hong's mother had bound feet. I met her when she first came to Australia from mainland China when my father had his restaurant in Surry Hills. She was a thin woman, always had her feet bound and couldn't walk by herself. I used to support her to walk up the street from Elizabeth Street to Reservoir Street.

Evelyn Yin-Lo, 77

I can remember her feet were very deformed, very painful with callouses. She always wore cotton padding and had difficulty walking. Her parents had to buy her children's shoes.

Roma Leong-See (talking about her mother)


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