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.