Foot binding or chanzu first became widespread during the Sung Dynasty of China (960-976 BC) .. At first, this was limited to the elite upper classes, but it soon spread to the middle and lower classes in the manner of other fads. Despite the pain and deformation the practice caused, foot binding persisted even into the beginning of the 20th century. The resulting child-like size, stubby or nonexistent toes and curved, deformed feet came to be known as “Lotus Feet”, a fetish object for Chinese men.

Normal shoes would not accommodate Lotus Feet but since they were unsightly to look upon , and given their status as a fetish, they had to be wrapped in cloth and shod. Thus, “Lotus shoes” were manufac-tured. These highly-decorated, ornate shoes, like the feet they adorned, were little more than treasured possessions of the men who owned them. According to a popular legend, foot binding started when a Chinese Emperor first saw one of his concubines dancing with bound feet. This concubine, named Yao Niang or Lovely Maiden, danced on a lotus platform with her feet bound to resemble the crescent moon.

He found this so called ‘Lotus gait’ so erotic and attractive that he prized Lovely Maiden more than any other. Originally, the concubine had meant her foot binding to be temporary, something to enhance her form in a lotus dance that she performed. Since the “Celestial Emperor” was of course the trendsetter for Chinese society, his nobles followed suit. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), even common farmers were wont to bind the feet of their daughter. So prevalent was foot binding that it was said that a woman with unbound feet would never find a spouse.

Foot binding was a long process that began as early as age 4 though among the lower classes it was postponed to age 7 because the child was needed to till the fields or assist in the shop. In childhood, bones remain tender and supple so binding them is relatively easy. A 10-foot-by-2-inch strip of cloth was used to bind the feet so that the smaller toes would press downwards. As time passes, feet would be bound ever tighter. The process was torturously painful and caused many a broken bone. Nails had to be manicured and cleaned everyday because the toe nails could cut into the flesh and cause infection.

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Naturally, the accompa-nying pus, blood and dead flesh caused a putrid stink to emit from the bound feet. About two years after the process began, daughters would have at least the ‘Silver Lotus’ of no more than 4 inches. But Chinese believed in the adage; “If you love your daughter, do not spare her feet”. Thus, the ideal was to attain the “Golden Lotus” foot no more than three inches long . Since normal-sized feet grow to 6 and up to 12 inches in late childhood, this meant that at minimum the bones of the girls feet would be bent over or broken until the foot was at most half the normal length.

Women who endured the pain of foot binding in childhood continued to suffer the rest of their lives. The “lotus gait” is very uncomfortable and awkward, similar to tottering along in very high heels. The pain prevents the woman from being able to move around too much . In fact, one source suggests that the real reason behind this unusual practice was to prevent women from running around and committing infidelity or to keep them from fleeing when their husbands would beat them. As a result, Chinese women were commonly housebound and unable to perform too much activity.

In other words she becomes little more than a decor¬ation in the house incapable of doing much productive work. This is why initially only the rich could afford to have bound feet since rural girl would no longer be much help in the farm. This practice was tolerated in China largely due to the country’s predominantly Confucian beliefs as well as East Asian views on women in general. Women were generally viewed as inferior and subordinate to men. In fact, the prevailing view at the time was that a married woman was effectively her husband’s chattel.

So there were no qualms about immo-bilizing a woman if that is what men found attractive. Lotus Shoes” were created for these women. The shoes were beautiful, ornate and highly adorned; some even had gold lining. There are many examples of “Lotus Shoes” on display in Chinese museums today. For over a thousand years, after all, the rich and powerful gave them to their women to decorate their feet. They were not practical footwear and could not stand heavy use. This was not a problem since, as previously mentioned women who had bound feet were not expected to do much more than stay indoors anyway. The practice of foot binding was outlawed after the Republic of China supplanted the last imperial dynasty.

Nonetheless, “Lotus Shoes” were still needed for those who had already grown up with bound feet. That the practice persisted no matter the laws of the land is attested to by the fact that the last factory closed down only in 1998 Along with democratic ideals, modern ideas about women’s rights had entered China. One goal of the Taiping Rebellion , for instance, was to try and foster equal rights for women. The archaic and painful practice of foot binding made it an obvious target. Later, the Republic established by Sun Yat Sen abolished foot binding.

The prohibition was slow to take hold, given how fragile and essentially powerless the republic was. The more powerful government established by Chiang Kai Shek in the 1920s was able to assert its authority and largely put an end to this practice, at least in cities and towns. Until 1949, nonetheless, daughters in the hinterlands still had their feet bound. Today, only the very old show signs of foot binding, relics of a soon-to-be-forgotten past It is easy to judge foot binding as barbaric and cruel. Modern ideas of child rearing just do not permit mutilating children as young as 4 years old and leaving them crippled for life.

As a reward for this mutilation, the child would be reduced to a sex object for future spouses. Often the sole criteria for judging the worth of a woman was the size of her feet. Never mind any other qualities that the woman might have. Foot size was everything then. Consider, however, how widespread body modification is in Western societies. Sailors and men in urban ghettoes and prison have long proclaimed some identity or other with massive tattooing. More to the point, women in the Victorian era women endured corsets made of whalebone in order to conform to society’s ideas of a desirable female figure.

Today both men and women practice many forms of self-mutilation to enhance their beauty. For example, women have silicone implanted onto their breasts and buttocks to enhance their size and men actually pay for penile implants. Both men and women submit themselves to liposuction. In other words, to this day people still justify doing considerable harm to their bodies in the pursuit of “beauty”. Still, only Chinese physicians have so far come forward to break adolescent leg bones and insert braces to add height.


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