Why did foot binding begin?
March 20, 2006 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Why exactly did the practice of footbinding begin? I know when it began and somewhat how it started, but why were people so eager to do it in the first place and who made it into a standard of beauty?
posted by cynthia_rose to Society & Culture (18 answers total)
 
Well, the obligatory Wikipedia entry suggests that it started as a sort of homage to an imperial concubine who danced with her feet bound. There's some more info on that legend here.
posted by Gator at 10:17 AM on March 20, 2006


A Chinese national told me that her grandmother said that all the talk about hobbling them, or that small feet are pretty, was disinformation.

The real purpose is that the folded and wrapped appendage has very soft skin and is for "pleasuring the man."
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:26 AM on March 20, 2006


Plus a bound foot rendered a woman helpless and useless. A man had to be wealthy enough to be able to afford a useless woman who had to be waited on for everything. It wa a status symbol. I had a friend whose grandmother had bound feet. She had to be carried in to my friend's wedding. It was sad & pathetic.
posted by clarkstonian at 10:32 AM on March 20, 2006


Just checked my source, and she said grangmother in question herself had bound feet.

Aside from using the foot itself for pleasure purposes, it seems that the kind of walking it requires is thought to tighten the vaginal muscles.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:46 AM on March 20, 2006


Chinese foot binding was certainly an atrocious, misogynist practice. But before westerners pat themselves on the back for not subjecting their women to the same barbarity, realize that high-heeled shoes are similar in both the aesthetic effect achieved and (albeit to a MUCH lesser degree) in the damage they cause to womens bodies. For whatever reason, we seem to be biologically wired to find small/outstretched feet to be attractive on women.
posted by randomstriker at 11:18 AM on March 20, 2006


randomstriker, I've often thought the same thing. I cannot for the life of me understand why some women want to wear shoes they cannot walk in. Some high heels afford movement, but I see at least one woman a day who can barely move because she is so hobbled by her shoes. I don't get it.
posted by agregoli at 11:40 AM on March 20, 2006


Then she's wearing the wrong shoes. High heels are easy to walk in.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:56 AM on March 20, 2006


I doubt we are biologically wired to find small/outstretched feet to be attractive on women. If this where the case it would exist much more cross culturally rather than 2 distinct examples. I would go with the societal argument myself.
posted by edgeways at 11:58 AM on March 20, 2006


Two things:
-We like the way our calves look while wearing high heels.
-Being 'higher up' gives one a sense of power - sexiness.

The kind of shoe I don't understand is the ultra-pointy toed ones that I see alot of women wearing. That looks seriously crippling. :S
posted by Radio7 at 12:08 PM on March 20, 2006


Women with bound feet/high heels can't get away quickly, and are thus easier to rape. Disgusting, but true.

This is an example of our base instincts emerging in a fashion that neatly sidesteps the disgust imparted by our sociological context.

Put differently:
Men want to breed with as many genetically fit females as possible in order to maximize their genetic survival. This process is more efficient (until widespread 'civilization' became the norm) if the females are unable to resist. Therefore limitations on mobility - a speed limit for females, if you will - is innately sexually arousing to men at an animal level. Because our sociological constructs prohibit any positive associations with the concept of rape, we create a sociologically acceptable means of limiting the speed of our females (via fashion in this case) that allows us to completely ignore the basic reason of our motivation for doing so.
posted by Ryvar at 12:29 PM on March 20, 2006


Ryver: This is the kind of thing I was told was put out as a smoke screen to westerners, because the real reasons were too, um, delicate.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:56 PM on March 20, 2006


Ryvar, that doesn't hold up at all. Trying to impart some 'speed limit' so they are easier to procreate with...that's not how it works. If that was the case, we'd be instinctively more attractive to handicapped people, deformed, and generally slow individuals, as it's easier to 'catch' them for mating purposes. Obviously not the case.
posted by Phynix at 1:29 PM on March 20, 2006


Separating out the real reasons for the origin of footbinding can be difficult because the practice has been, rightly or wrongly, appropriated by groups fighting genital mutilation, repression of women, and, apparently, the wearing of high-heel shoes.

The Windows on Asia site for K-12 teachers has a high school reading level brief on reasons for footbinding. Quoting the main paragraph: "This practice ... endured for 600 years for a number of reasons. First, bound feet had sexual overtones, similar to those given to the breast today. Second, it reinforced the "inner" nature of women, as it was more difficult for them to travel out of the house. Third, it demonstrated to the world the wealth of the family, in that the women didn't need to work, or didn't need to work a great deal. This custom, of course, was discontinued in the early 20th century with the rise of the "natural feet" movement..."

If you want something a bit more scholarly, although it raises as many questions as it answers, then the [crappy format PDF] paper Women, Marriage, and the Family in Chinese History has a section called FOOTBINDING AND WIDOW CHASTITY which includes the on-topic edited remarks:

"Footbinding began its spread in the Sung, first among dancers and courtesans. Nevertheless, in the large body of Sung poems and songs scholars have found only a few lines that refer to bound feet...Through the eleventh century the evidence is extremely thin, and it is plausible that the practice was most common among dancers or courtesans... A late-fourteenth-century writer quoted a twelfth-century discussion...that said a dancer in the palace of the ruler of the Later T’ang (923-935) bound her feet to make them small and curved like new moons. He concluded that people began to imitate her, and that although the practice was still rare through the eleventh century, it spread through imitation so that in his day people were ashamed not to practice it. Can anything be inferred from these limited references concerning the reasons for the spread of footbinding? Howard Levy argues that erotic attraction was basic to the appeal of bound feet. In his discussion of the origins of footbinding, however, Levy connects it lo intellectual currents in the Sung dynasty, especially the emphasis on womanly docility and chastity. He repeats a story that Chu Hsi, while prefect of Changthou in southern Fukien, encouraged footbinding as a way to promote chastity by making it more difficult for women to move about (becausewomen with bound feet had to use canes to walk). This story is almost surely spurious as far as the reference to Chu Hsi goes. But does it contain a deeper truth? Did footbinding spread because of increased concern about controlling women and, in particular, limiting their mobility? Is there a socioeconomic explanation for the attraction of delicate women? Are there historical reasons why this attraction would have become more potent in Sung and Yuan times.."

Howard Levy's book is referenced in the previous Wikipedia cite. If you're really interested, there is another book out there which covers footbinding in detail, titled Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China" by Ping Wang (or Wang Ping). An excerpt is available for reading at Amazon.
posted by mdevore at 2:21 PM on March 20, 2006


Intrestingly, the Manchus thought footbinding was gross, and so Manderan women (at the top of society) did not bind their feet after the 1640s.

IIRC.
posted by delmoi at 4:58 PM on March 20, 2006


The real purpose is that the folded and wrapped appendage has very soft skin and is for "pleasuring the man."

Well, I've read that small feet were "fetishized" in chinese popular culture. Maybe on par with "breas fetishism" here in the US/Japan.

You certanly don't need to bind, and deform feet in order to make the skin soft.

Remember bound feet are not just 'small' they are folded in on themselves in a very freaky way.

for example
posted by delmoi at 5:03 PM on March 20, 2006


Yeah, according to the wikipedia entry, the chinese government had been trying to ban footbinding since the 1600s, when the manchu's took over.
posted by delmoi at 5:04 PM on March 20, 2006


You certanly don't need to bind, and deform feet in order to make the skin soft. ... Remember bound feet are not just 'small' they are folded in on themselves in a very freaky way.

delmoi, you're not getting it. I hate to have to spell it out, but think of the word footjob.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:10 PM on March 20, 2006


Ryvar, that doesn't hold up at all. Trying to impart some 'speed limit' so they are easier to procreate with...that's not how it works. If that was the case, we'd be instinctively more attractive to handicapped people, deformed, and generally slow individuals, as it's easier to 'catch' them for mating purposes. Obviously not the case.

Handicapped, deformed, and generally slow individuals are for the purpose of survival in the wilderness, genetically inferior.

It's genetically healthy females who are artificially constrained that is appealing.
posted by Ryvar at 11:36 PM on March 20, 2006


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