Chinese women practiced footbinding for centuries—why is still too little understood.
People love to tell stories, preserving—and also confabulating—our pasts. The story of footbinding in China is an intriguing case in point: the curious practice has been given the full romance-sex-and-violence treatment, inviting us to cry over and thrill to the image of women sacrificing years of agony, ostensibly for beauty, self-expression, and a desirable husband. In recent years, news reports have periodically announced the discovery of the last surviving footbound women in one or another remote village of China, or the demise of the last shoemaking company that produced specialized shoes for footbound women, proving that this now defunct but once prevalent custom—the wrapping, warping, and crushing of young girls’ feet—continues to fascinate and remains mysterious. How could a civilization have supported such a deleterious custom that left tens of millions of Chinese women hobbling throughout their lives?
How could a civilization have supported such a deleterious custom that left tens of millions of Chinese women hobbling throughout their lives?
The most common explanation given is that small feet were considered beautiful and improved a girl’s marriage prospects. The practice has been treated as one type of “oddity” in the human experience of bodily deformations, and interpreted as a form of status-seeking behavior motivated by the quest for beauty and improved social standing. Many writers and scholars have portrayed the practice as a phenomenon largely limited to urban, non-laboring elites who lived in cities and towns where fashion and status took precedence over pragmatism and economic necessity. But this is not the whole picture.
One common assumption about footbinding is that footbound women couldn’t work. They were assumed to be status-giving trophy wives whose leisure reflected positively on their husbands. The assumption of footbound female leisure survived in part because there is so little visual or textual evidence regarding the way footbound women lived. The photographs from the early twentieth century that depict footbound women nearly all show them seated or standing in a formal pose, often in a studio, alone or with family members, and usually wearing their best clothes. While photographs of village men working outdoors are abundant, photographs of footbound village women out of doors in public places, or working at anything are extremely rare.
The absence of information about the economic activities of footbound village women and girls stems from the fact that most historical sources were written by men and a few women among China’s literary elite. Often writing poetically about elite women, beauty, and longing, they had relatively little to say about women’s labor in elite households, and even less about village women.
Fortunately, footbinding—foot breaking, foot crushing—is no longer inflicted on writhing, screaming seven-year-olds—and yet, also fortunately, many very old women who were footbound as children still live in China’s villages. In 2005, we wanted to get some facts (and some new stories) from these elders to learn more about them and the role of this practice in their lives. We built on a database of 5,000 interviews collected in early-1990s Sichuan, adding 1,800 more between 2006 and 2011 from a wide arc of provinces across China’s late-modernized interior. These charming, sharp-tongued, funny, thoughtful women each answered more than 200 questions about their girlhoods, their young married lives, and the experiences of those who had been footbound.
In the course of our interviews a recurring theme emerged: they told us in lavish detail about the work they did that helped support their birth families, built up their dowries, and gave them a reputation for discipline and productivity that attracted “a good mother-in-law.” Curiously, their firsthand accounts stood at odds with existing narratives around footbinding, which have rarely considered the labor, skills, or expertise of these women beyond the appearance of their small feet. With excessive, almost exclusive, attention on the bound foot itself as an exotic object, the rest of these women’s embodied experience has been largely ignored. However, in villages across China, footbound women did not just “sit on their hands.”
In this age of robots and industrial processes replacing labor, it is easy to forget that not so long ago, hired laborers were referred to as “hands”—“field hands,” “farm hands,” or “factory hands,” while assisting with work was called “lending a hand.” Skilled hands were important and valuable. Hands were equally important in Chinese, where an expert in something was often called a “hand.” The historical and cultural focus on the feet of footbound women has distracted from the importance of their hands—and, by extension, the true significance of footbinding in women’s lives, particularly for the vast numbers who lived in poor farming villages. In these villages very young girls were trained to use their hands, to work with their hands to make a variety of goods used by the family and valuable in commercial exchange. Far from idle, women and girls in preindustrial China engaged in a multitude of useful and commercial handcrafts.
The historical and cultural focus on the feet of footbound women has distracted from the importance of their hands.
The work of girls and unmarried women had enormous influence on China’s not yet industrialized regions as it had in the long preindustrial past. Apart from the help that even the footbound gave their families in agriculture, village women and young girls of ordinary families made many useful articles and provided essential services. Their hands spun the thread and wove most of the cloth that China’s millions wore and slept under. They also wove mats, bags, and fishnets, made straw hats and shoes, scraped poppy-seed pods for raw opium, picked and processed fruits and oils. Depending on local resources and markets, family-based work teams employed female hand labor to produce an astonishing variety of goods with commercial value.
Young girls and daughters-in-law worked under the supervision of senior women in their households, mothers and mothers-in-law who desperately needed and relied upon their labor. While men and their sons grew much of the family’s food, women and their daughters clothed the family—and often earned cash income to buy what the household could not produce. Small family farms, pushed over the centuries by population growth and commercialization, squeezed as much work as they could from each family member.
How does one persuade a girl of seven to sit still and spin cotton hour after hour, from dawn till dark while mother weaves at the loom? Why does the child not run away from her task (an easy flight, considering that her mother was likely footbound as well)? Put this way, footbinding, supplemented by threats and beatings, was a compelling reason. As young children with growing feet, girls experienced years of painful deformation, passing sleepless nights with burning, swollen feet, and days when they might only be able to sit or crawl because their arches had been broken. From roughly ages five to ten, their mothers bound them, threatened them, and beat them if they tried to undo or loosen the bindings. Young girls had to relearn to walk, keeping weight on their heels, and leaning on walls to balance. After many months and years, when the adolescent girl finally stopped growing and binding achieved the desired shape (or an approximation), the feet would stabilize and the pain subside. In the interim, those years of relative immobility gave mothers the opportunity to instruct their daughters in the sedentary and crucial labor of household production
Needing to fully mobilize their household labor force, mothers did what they felt they had to, employing a cruel tactic. For ordinary people, footbinding was labor discipline. It was frequent among folk with resources readily worked by girls’ hand labor, less common where these were few. Shifts in technology and cultural practice further support this understanding: We have tracked the demise of footbinding in parallel with the local arrival of machine-made cotton yarn and cloth. As cheaper, machine-made cotton yarn and cloth infiltrated a region, mothers abandoned footbinding. Their daughters would continue to work under their supervision, but immobilizing girls was no longer necessary to the discipline of household production.
There is good reason to be skeptical of the simple-minded, beauty-seeking story of footbinding that has circulated so widely. Were ordinary, working women really so fashion-foolish, so light-minded, so free of economic concerns? Binding feet was not like wearing stilettos for a weekend; it had permanent effects on locomotion throughout their lives. If women with bound feet were not productive workers, what kind of economic system could support them? Why should we conclude that harshly hobbling the female gait persisted for centuries for largely aesthetic reasons when the home-bound work of footbound girls and women played such an enormous part in China’s agrarian empire?
Our research shows that footbinding was widespread across China, not just among the elite, but among ordinary villagers. What has long been seen as a lavish waste of women’s natural capabilities in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal was at the same time a cultural practice that encouraged a highly productive specialization of women’s labor. Wives and daughters-in-law who had the skills and discipline to contribute economically were often the invisible pillars of family wellbeing and success.