Sinology Sunday: June 28, 2015

The costumes in Bu Bu Jing Xin and the Legend of Zhen Huan are gorgeous – but what are those things on their feet? Why are they wearing such strange high heels? Wouldn’t it be rather difficult to walk in them?

To answer this question, we could first consider the history of bound feet in China.

According to legend, bound feet originated in the late Shang dynasty. Da Ji (of the Invesiture of the Gods) was a fox demon, who could take on the appearance of a very beautiful woman – with her feet as the exception, which remained like the hooves (or paws) of a four-legged animal. She did not want to be mocked for her feet, so the King ordered that other palace women bind their feet.

This slipper came from the Qing dynasty, when footbinding was already as established practice.

The Shang dynasty ended around 1046 B.C.E, history tells us that bound feet did not actually originate in the Shang dynasty. Supposedly, the first woman to bind her feet was a dancer in the court of Li Yu (ruled from 961 – 976), an emperor of the Southern Tang. If we follow the research of the 14th century scholar, Tao Zhongyi, bound feet were no longer a rare sight by 1068-1085 C.E. With the fall of the Northern Song and the relocation of the capital to Hangzhou (in southern China), the tradition of foot binding also moved southward. Su Dongpo (1037 – 1101 C.E.) of the Song dynasty was the first of many poets to write odes to small feet. The Mongolians of the Yuan dynasty (which supplanted the Song and lasted from 1271-1368 C.E.) were enchanted by the practice, and with their encouragement, footbinding became more widespread still.

In the Song dynasty, the ideal length of a bound foot was four inches, without much regard for the shape. By the Ming dynasty, there were extensive stipulations for the way the foot should be pointed or arched, and the ideal length shrunk to three inches. Such perfect feet were renowned as “three inch golden lotuses.” (Fun fact: Empress Ma, wife of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.) ’s founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, was known for being natural footed. She and her husband had both been commoners when they married. Legend says that a man mocked her for her large feet at a lantern festival, and Zhu Yuanzhang executed him as retribution).

Some pictures of shoes made for bound feet:

This is not to say that admiration for bound feet was universal, or that there were no deviations from the standard ideal. Historically, bound feet in the north tended to be smaller than those of the south.

Bound feet therefore became symbols of status – theoretically, a woman with bound feet should not work, and therefore, only wealthy families could support a woman with bound feet. Yet bound feet also reflected the character of the woman – the process that produced a perfectly bound foot was excruciatingly painful. Therefore, a woman who could endure the horror of foot-binding was a woman who could endure hardship, wouldn’t give up, and would persevere through her troubles. Indeed – although it was often the parents who initiated the foot-binding, girls would begin to tighten their own bindings as they grew older, knowing the impact they could have on her marriage prospects, and her status in her husband’s home. On nights when broken bones and inflamed flesh forbid them from entering sleep, they pressed onwards.

And in this way, using bound feet as a measure of beauty leveled the playing ground; made beauty more than a genetic lottery. Working women would darken when they toiled in the sun; childbirth would take away thin waists, age would wrinkle perfect skin. Only bound feet, shielded under exquisite shoes and forever delicate, could lend their owners eternal beauty.

(Until, that is, the last dynasty fell in 1911, and bound feet – for centuries a symbol of status, power, highly regarded beauty – became a symbol of a backward feudal society*.)

Kangxi of the Manchurian Qing dynasty (1644 -1911 C.E.), however, forbid Manchu girls from adopting the style. Women with bound feet had an unsteady walk, tottering a little when they moved. To mimic the style of girls with bound feet, Manchurian women donned “hua pen shoes 花盆鞋子.” The high heels lent their step a certain unsteadiness when they walked, and only the tips of their feet peeked out from under their long dresses – creating the appearance of minuscule feet.


*Not that “aching for beauty” is a phenomenon limited to feudal Chinese society. Case in point: corsets in the west, neck rings in burma, modern day plastic surgery.

Although foot-binding persisted in some rural areas until the 1930s (in spite of laws outlawing the practice), the practice has now died out, and the only women with bound feet are very, very old. Jo Farrell spent years in China, seeking to photograph these women: you can find some of her photos here.

If you want to learn more about the history of footbinding, you can borrow Wang Ping’s book Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (which is where most of the information in this article came from). As always, you can find an overview on the History of China on Wikipedia. I’ve left out pictures of actual bound feet, because they’re quite gruesome – a quick google search will give you a good idea of what they looked like without their coverings. Indeed, even as men sought small-footed women as brides, they were always cautioned to never remove the bindings, or the spell would be broken forever….Both the article with Jo Farell’s pictures and this book portray the brutality of footbinding more completely than this article does, and are worth a read if you have the time.

And now: more pictures of hua pen shoes in Chinese drama.

01. From the Legend of Zhen Huan:

02. From Gong 2

03. From Gong, the Movie

04. From Bu Bu Jing Xin

05. From Legend of Cixi

Another picture from real life, of Empress Dowager Cixi.

6 thoughts on “Sinology Sunday: June 28, 2015

  1. There is a great book called The Golden Lotus, a fiction story about footbinding during the Chinese Republican period when the practice was fading out. It’s told from the point of view of a couple of women, one, the educated young girl fighting for feminism in the new age, and her adversery, a older noble woman who was still protecting the concept of foot binding. The stoy goes into detail about the process of foot binding. Not for the sqeamish since the process is horrific and if you have a vivid imagination, it may frighten you. Interestingly enough some have compared the modern trend of high heels to foot binding as both are meant to entice and beautify the feet and legs.

  2. Very interesting!! Thanks so much for this. And great point about plastic surgery, corsets, etc. So much pain goes into changing women’s bodies to fit with the beauty standards.

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