Written Assignment The Meaning of Footbinding in China

It is known that the history of footbinding practice have always attracted attention of historians. The practice of footbinding became “a national fashion and cultural fixation in late Imperial China, while lotus feet became the synonym for femininity, beauty, hierarchy, and eroticism.”¯1 These facts mean that female feet have been honored in China. This practice occurred in the period of Tang Dynasty (618-906) and continued to the late period of Qing Dynasty, when it was abolished by the rulers. It has been found that footbinding practice have reached its peak of popularity in the Ming Dynasty, “during which it became a highly eroticized feminine effect.”¯2 Women guarded their feet, and did not allow men other than their husbands or lovers to touch their feet. This practice was passed from old women to young girls, from one generation to another. Footbinding was focused on the use of brutal force in relation to female body. It is clear that binding the toes with silk bands which led to the breakage of bones caused severe pain and sufferings.

However, this tradition finally faded out because of the changes in the views and national propaganda developed by the activists from the Western missionary organizations and Chinese intellectuals. Some experts consider that footbinding practice became “a symbol of national shame.”¯3 In the article The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China, the author helps to better understand the role of footbinding practices in Seventeenth-Century China. Dorothy Ko discusses the popularity of footbinding in the colonial age, its political aspects and the diversity of meanings. Although today footbinding practices can be viewed as traditional cultural practices of China which help to better understand Chinese culture, worldviews, and beliefs, in the colonial age, footbinding had negative impact on women’s freedom and their right of choice.

It is known that footbinding practices represented high cultural standards of Chinese society. The practices of foodbinding were focused on pressing the young girl’s toes toward the heel with special cloth binders in order to control and restrict the size of the feet. The feet were bulged into a classic arched shape. The girls in China had to wear “tight socks for a slender look.”¯4 The author of the article tries to find out how foootbinding practices were spread through time, across different regions of China and across different social classes. In addition, she is interested in women’s attitude towards these practices. The author states that “for a historian, “there is no neutral of objective knowledge about footbinding.”¯5 Whatever knowledge contemporary historians can receive depends on “who they are, who wrote the texts, when and why.”¯ 6 Footbinding was initially practiced for the Chinese elite, but in the late period, it became popular among women of all social groups, including the poor ones. In addition, this practice is associated with beauty and wealthy because the Chinese women with bound feet could not work. In some cases, women with bound feet could not walk. Although bound feet demonstrated women’s high status in Chinese society, this adornment caused physical suffering. In addition, those women who had bound feet were known as disciplined and virtuous women.

The author of the article states that the spread of footbinding practices in China depended on the political situation in the empire. She has found that “as long as the aura of the Chinese imperium was projected to the four seas, all efforts to ban footbinding would be furtile.”¯7 In the 19-th century, the political situation in the Empire changed because of the numerous domestic and foreign assaults, and footbinding practices lost their popularity and became superfluous. This fact means that footbinding was closely connected with prosperity of China, the country’s unique traditions and customs, beliefs and values.

The main peculiarity of the Chinese tradition of footbinding practices in the 16-th and 17-th centuries was focused on the fact that footbinding was considered as an essential part of the female attire. It was not a mutilation of the human body, which caused sufferings and pain to young girls. Footbinding was considered as an element of fashion. This attire of the human body consisted of three major components: clothes, hair and limbs. In China, according to Dorothy Ko, all three components were “attire that could be manipulated and altered at will by the person displaying his or her political allegiance and cultural identity.”¯8 Historical sources, such as encyclopedias of history, prove the fact that footbinding practices were classified in China as bodily decoration or clothing. Dorothy Ko has found that one of the sources with “a 1591 preface included footbinding in the section “Female Adornments”¯, alongside with some other important components of female attire: “five hairstyles of hairdo, twenty one ways to draw eyebrows red finger nails, various powders and rouges and earpiercing.”¯9

Of course, the practice of footbinding was criticized. For example, the outstanding Confucian poet Gong Zizhen severely “criticized footbinding practices in his poems.”¯10 Looking to the practice of footbinding form the perspective of young girls and women who had to follow this tradition, the major motivation for footbinding was concluded in women’s duty to control their desires and their bodies. Due to this practice, “women achieved mastery over their bodily desires through the practiced discipline of pain.”¯11 It is known that when footbinding practices were abolished in China, unbound feet were called “liberated feet”¯12 Women became less dependent on their husbands. They had an opportunity to make their own decisions.

Besides the above mentioned facts, it is known that footbinding practices had another purpose ”“ to increase the husband’s confidence in his wife’s fidelity, because women with crippled feet could not easily wonder from home in the pursuit of sexual affairs.”¯13


In conclusion, it is necessary to say that the practice of footbinding in China reflected the role and status of Chinese women who lived in the colonial age. Footbinding practices incorporated the major philosophical and political attitudes in Chinese society. This adornment of female feet was one of the characteristics of Confucian culture according to which a woman did not require large feet for her status in society and ethical contributions, such as producing children. This fact means that in China of colonial age, women’s rights were limited, according to Confucian social norms. Dorothy Ko’s article The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China helps to better understand the role of women in Chinese society, their duties and social rights. Although this practice became the symbol of national fashion, it had another meaning: discrimination of women’s rights.

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