Chinese Footbinding Essay, Research Paper
The ancient Chinese custom of footbinding caused severe life-long suffering for the Chinese women involved. When researching the subject of footbinding, one of the difficult things is finding factual knowledge written before the 20th century. Most of the historical data has been gathered from writings, drawings and photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries. Additionally, the research indicates that the historical documentation was mainly from missionary accounts and literature from various anti-footbinding societies. These groups had a bias because of their opposing viewpoints. The first documented reference to footbinding was from the Southern Tang Dynasty in Nanjing (Vento 1). Although the history of footbinding is very vague it lasted for at least one thousand years.Early text referred to the Han Dynasty as people who preferred that the women have small feet (Vento, 1). Vento also acknowledged the first documented reference to actual binding of the feet was from the Tang Dynasty in Nanjing (1). Before the Sung Dynasty Binding was only slightly constricting, allowing for free movement, they were also thought to have used footbinding to suppress women. The Yuan Dynasty introduced binding into the central and southern parts of China. It may have been emphasized to draw a clear cultural distinction between the Chinese and their large footed conquerors, the Mongols. Footbinding was most popular during the Ming Dynasty, if parents cared for their sons they would not go easy on their studies and if they cared for their daughters they would not go easy on their footbinding (Levy, 47-49). One recent study estimated that there are still one million women in China with bound feet. The last Chinese women, still living with bound feet in Hawaii, was in 1994 (Kam, D-6).There are many legends of how footbinding began, one such legend is Lady Yao, a dancer and concubine for Prince Li Yu, danced with such grace that the prince required her to bind her feet to resemble new moons all the time. Another, is that it began out of the sympathy for Empress Taki who had club feet (Aero, 112-113). Although it has not been proven how footbinding started, one of the biggest reasons the practice continued for over 1000 years was it’s sexual appeal (Kam, D-1).Humans have shown they will do just about anything- good, evil, or in-between for sex. Footbinding is a very bold issue that many Chinese do not like to talk about. Some men felt troubled because it suggests that men are capable of using their superior social position to coerce women to conform to a grotesque and deformed custom. Women are uncomfortable because it is unsettling to think that their ancestors crippled their own daughters just to meet a social standard behavior. In the past Chinese pornography reflected a preoccupation with feet and the men who adore them called “lotus lovers”. It became the signature of the Brothel culture. Prostitutes would expose their feet “in a private chamber” where it was customary for the man to linger over the girl’s feet, stroking, sniffing and licking them and even dipping them in tea before drinking it. A favorite delight was to eat almonds from between her crushed toes. Tiny feet were found in the writing of poetry and songs in old China (Vento, 3-4). With the body weight on the heels, the walk caused the muscles of the vagina to tighten, Chinese men claimed that making love to a woman with bound feet was like making love to a virgin. The important part of the foot was the crevice that was created by breaking the arch during the original binding process. This crevice was sometimes treated like a second vagina in lovemaking (Jackson, 108). In western society we also admire the small foot, some women wear their shoes a size too small. In Victorian days the women would bind their waists in 14 inch corsets, cutting off their breathing and damaging their organs (Kam, D-1). Some women today have breast implants knowing they risk getting cancer. Some women and men go to ridiculous lengths to fit in with societies values. The beauty of bound feet was a value deeply rooted in the Chinese sexual psyche (McDowell, 63-64). The feet were only unbound for cleaning and for love making. This allowed men to fantasize about the feet. They were told that looking at an unwrapped bound foot would forever destroy their aesthetic pleasures (Seagrave, 9). To this day elderly Chinese men will look at a women’s feet before he does her face. The girls were bound at the early age to take advantage of the softness of their bones. Before beginning the actual binding, the feet would be soaked in warm water to soften the skin. Various ingredients were added such as ground almonds, mulberry root, and other roots and herbs, thought to have helped in the softening of the skin in order to allow for a better binding. The families would pass on from generation to generation their special soaking recipes. Warmed animal blood was another soaking potion. In the Shanxi Province, the practice of sacrificing a lamb and placing the child’s feet inside was not uncommon. In Jiangxi Province, a live chicken would sometimes be used in the same manner (Jackson, 32). Part of creating a small foot also involved the loss of flesh that would rot away.The footbinder would use a bandage approximately two inches wide and ten feet long. The four toes would be forced under the foot towards the sole of the foot. The bandage would be placed against the instep and wrapped over the toes , holding them against the sole. The bandage would be wrapped back around the heel, pulling the heel and toes together. The heel ultimately took the shape of a flattened saucer (Jackson, 34). The bindings were often sewn together with heavy thread to keep them from unraveling and , more importantly to keep the little girl from loosening them. While walking the weight would be placed on the heel. The severe pain lasted about a year. However, the pain did not completely disappear until the child’s bones quit growing. The feet would be washed and rebound about every 3 days. Every 2 weeks they would change shoes, each new pair would be one or two tenths smaller (Ferguson, 1). The ideal foot was the 3 inch long golden lily, however, this was rare and those who did accomplish this task usually married into the upper class of people (Kam, D-6). Matchmakers were not asked “Is she beautiful” but “How small are her feet”. They believed that the face was given by heaven but a poorly bound foot was a sign of laziness. Complications such as ulceration’s, paralysis and gangrene we not uncommon. The foot was often washed separate from the rest of their body to shield themselves from contamination (Vento, 2-3). It was the custom to place a 2 1/2 inch shoe on an altar for the goddess Kwan Yin the night before their daughter’s feet were bound. Also a pen point was held in the girl’s hand on the first binding because of the belief that the feet might then become as pointed as the pen (Gottschalk, C-3). Some men, primarily actors and prostitutes also bound their feet. The practice became the standard for beauty in the imperial court and spread downward socially and geographically as the lower classes tried to imitate the elite. Lower class girls were often made to wait until their early teens to start the process, and often less tightly bound to allow for easier mobility, while upper class girls could start as early as age four (Vento, 3).Footbinding was psychologically no different than plucking eyebrows, or getting a face lift today. The willingness to maim oneself to achieve the standards set by society. When we feel accepted in society it makes us feel better about ourselves. Some of the physical effects were: 1) The outside swelling of the abdomen, 2) a groove line down the center of the back caused by tension of the back muscles, 3) a forward curve of the lumbar vertebrae, 4) when the footbound woman walked her lower body was tense, causing the skin to tighten, 5) the buttock became larger (Levy 34).The non-Han people such as Mongols and the Tibetans did not bind their feet. And in the rice farming areas in China it was not as common because of the need for girls to work the fields. The anti-footbinding reformers, mostly missionaries,: 1) educated the Chinese by explaining that the rest of the world did not bind women’s feet, and that if they continued it would lead to China losing face, 2) education explained the advantages of natural feet and disadvantages of bound feet, 3) they formed natural-foot societies, the members pledged not to bind their daughters feet and not allow their sons to marry women with bound feet (Vento, 3-4). The last banning by the Chinese Government was in 1949, although the practice continued until in the late 1950’s (Kam, D-1).As young as four years old, the Chinese girls were forced to bind their feet. None of them asked to have this type of torture placed upon them. However, when they grew up they were very proud to have nicely bound feet. Especially when they were married to the scholars and became part of a well-known, old and big family. Footbinding was an important social custom. What one society feels is wrong another may consider right in the context of their cultural beliefs.WORKS CITEDAero, Rita. Things Chinese. China Cultural Printing Company: San Francisco: 1980: 112-113.Ferguson, Nancy M. Chinese Footbinding: Golden Lilies, Lotus Petal and Lily Petals. Retrieved, August 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.csuchico.edu/~cheinz/syllabi/anth239/fall97/nan-foot.htm: 1, 2.Gottschalk, Mary. “Exploring the mystique of Chinese footbinding.” The Honolulu Advertiser 31, March 1998: C-3.Jackson, Beverley. Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, California: 1997: 32, 34,108.Kam, Nadine. “Golden Lilies.” Star-Bulletin 10, March, 1998: D-1, D-6.Kam, Nadine. “Oh, how we suffer in the name of beauty.” Star Bulletin 10, March, 1998: D-1, D-6.Levy, Howard S. Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom. Bell Publishing Company: New York: 1992: 34, 47-49Loiselle, Dawnelle. Footbinding: Lotus Petals. Retrieved, August 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.towson.edu/~loiselle/foot.html#dwork: 2.McDowell, Colin. Shoes. Rizzoli International Publications Incorporated: New York: 1989: 63-64.Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady. Scribbler’s Ltd., New York: 1992: 9.Vento, Marie. One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity and Demise. Retrieved, August 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/studpages/vento.html: 1, 2-3, 3-4.