Footbinding: Letter to my daughter

~Allow me to break your feet.

I promise

You will be beautiful~

© Jo Farrell

Universally, women have been familiar with “taboos, constraints, and exclusionary” practices. Her body, her sexuality and her reproductive role as a mother in society have commonly been at the center of these taboos.


Judith Butler’s Gender Constitution essay parallels the idea of being a woman to an act. She makes use of Beauvoir’s claim that

“one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”

This is the idea that a woman is compelled to conform her body to a historical idea of “woman” so that the body becomes a stage that materializes this limited understanding of her. She, being a cultural representation in the play. The actor (woman) role plays this idea repeatedly, beat by beat until the sight of womanhood submits to a uniform understanding of her gender.

© Donna Jo Napoli
© Donna Jo Napoli

This explanation fosters the idea that the repetitive re-enactment of scenes carves out the cultural signs that create meanings for womanhood. Foot-binding is a symbol of these repeated scenes.

This protracted discipline upon a mindful body was in the name of “a mother’s love and a daughter’s virtue.”

Even though these mothers carried the lifetime ache of having debilitated feet they were still persuaded to pass on this custom/act with all its pains. The complex feelings that came with this persuasion can be felt in this Chinese saying if you love your daughter, you have to be cruel to her feet.

When—and why—did the practice of foot binding begin?

 It is not clear when footbinding began but it is commonly linked to the second ruler of the Tang Dynasty  Li Yu (937-978). It is said that Yao Niang [the Emperor’s most favored concubine] bound her feet into a hoof-like shape and danced on the image of a large lotus flower. This image entranced Emperor Li Yu. Consequently, the practice quickly gained popularity.

The practice was first done by women of a wealthier status. Bound feet showed that she could stay at home without needing to labor to live. This practice quickly spread and became prevalent across Chinese development across urban and the rural communities in the twelfth century. So much so that between 1926 and 1933, 71% of women over the age of ten had bound feet in Central and North China. A tradition that lasted for over 1000 years.

How exactly were feet bound? 


The feet of a young girl was broken and tightly bound under pressure with a 10 m long cotton strip, twirling the bandage over and over again such that foot pressure was unrelieved. With time, the four toes would steadily pleat under the sole of the foot, creating a 3-inch golden lotus (三寸金莲). This being an image that was once idealized as the pinnacle of beauty.

Footbinding:  Letter to my daughter

In this post, I want to peep into this tradition (footbinding) to catch glimpses of the culture of womanhood. I suspect that some of the 8  insights/lessons that I have selected from this outdated tradition may still be relevant today.

1. Ideas of beauty are passed on:

Foot binding as a tradition was the “emblem of femininity and beauty” and it was passed on from generation to generation. In an article by Glitten an interviewee named Fu, aptly explained the idea of beauty being passed on when she said:

“my mother had bound feet, and her mother, and her mother.”

By the turn of 20th century, footbinding was as barbaric, “quickly becoming a shameful page in the books of Chinese culture.”

This reveals that definitions of beauty change. How can a practice change from being ‘beautiful’ to ‘barbaric’?  The shifts and changes in our societal definitions should make us stop and be critical of the social & cultural definitions that we believe, especially those definitions which are used to recreate social differences between men and women.

2. Foot-binding provided mothers with a language: 

“what pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability & it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.”


I suspect that many mothers would have gladly taken the double breaking of their feet on behalf of their daughter’s. But the un-sharability of this pain obligated each mother to be cruel to her daughter’s feet, the reality demanded that her baby girl feels the pain for herself.

What is interesting to note with pain, is that usually there is no language to explain it entirely. Perhaps another can only begin to understand it when they have felt it for themselves. The pain becomes the language.

“Fred Blake intricately analyses the pain and reality of this language sharing in saying, footbinding provided mothers with a language to express their lived pain to their daughters.

 Indeed, “We will probably never know what kinds of verbal instructions mothers gave daughters in the actual ordeal of binding. My point is that the teng exchanged between mothers and daughters in the ordeal of binding
was itself a lesson about language. I think foot-binding pointed to the
notion of women as “muted”. That women were muted
does not refer to women’s incapacity to make utterances, to be clever or
entertaining with words, or even to be aggressive with words, but rather
to their incapacity to give their words the weight of authority, to have
their words taken seriously, or to make decisive statements worthy of
public credibility.”


The pain inflicted on a mindful body was the preparation ground, the stage, for the mother to teach her daughter how to survive, given her fate in a patriarchal society. Through the pain, she was teaching her daughter how to survive as a woman in the world. The mother in the process was “making something of what the world makes of her”.

3. Well bound feet became an emblem for a woman’s character 

It is important to note that bound feet were used as an emblem for her character. This practice reflected how families of all classes desired to raise their girls to be virtuous with good manners well prepared for their role in a traditional patriarchal marriage.

When a man was ready for marriage his mother would seek out a young girl with well-bound feet. Her feet spoke on her behalf, on whether she had been willing to undergo training despite the gruesome pain, illustrating that she was disciplined, resilient and able to submit to her parents.  This stressed filial piety, duty, and learning, central values in Chinese culture.

Similarly today, there are emblems used to identify “good women” ranging from education or virginity or whether she has a child or not. And supposedly these emblems of character tell you of her worth. These emblems for character take away from the multiple stories that women present as individuals.


4. Nonconforming women were ousted

According to Dorothy Ko a woman who didn’t have her feet bound was “laughed at and despised and treated as a slave girl” and “no man would marry her”.

In a folk song from Henan province, the lyrics retell of a “madam big feet” who tries to buy a new pair of shoes, whilst trying to stuff her over-sized feet as she knocks down walls, damaging temples. Whilst peeing on the way home she swamps down six towns with her urine before walking back home with “big strides.” This “Madam big feet” is displayed as a clumsy woman in the song, her big feet in this tune are said to threaten the cosmic order. Her body in this folk song represents forces of nature, akin to how the earthquake and the flood bring disorder, her large feet negatively engulf the area and infect everything she spirits past.

Even in today’s world, the woman who does not comply to the script is usually ousted. For this reason, It’s incredibly important for us to revisit social culture, looking at the ways in which society, pop culture, and language is used to oust women who do not comply with the script.

5. Culture & Customs are the haters and lovers of women:


The mystery of bound feet: “slender, small, pointy, arched, fragrant, soft and straight” is a culture that is associated with the Chinese.

In an interesting account, Mr. Wang recalls the moment where his wife first unbound her feet in front of him. He describes this moment as a “beautiful sight” he continues to say that he had no words to explain his attraction to her feet.

We would expect that a non-Chinese man would have found the sight of bound feet despicable. For this reason, Gu likens bound feet/culture to the “delight of eating fried fermented bean curd and rotten eggs, native delicacies that no foreigner would touch.”

The beauty of culture is undoubtedly it’s uniqueness to outsiders and it’s beauty to those it belongs to. However, culture and customs are at times presented as inevitable. This creates the illusion that culture is intractable, as though cultural practices have no Genesis.

My key concern with any custom or tradition that merely stands on “It’s our culture” is that even when it inflicts brutal pain and violence it is still defended as absolutely good.

6. Appropriation of women’s labor: 

A more recent explanation of footbinding by Bossen and Gates (1989) analyses footbinding from a Marxist-feminist school of thought. These scholars argue that through footbinding a woman was made to appear disabled and weak. In this way, the patriarchs would appropriate the value of female labor.

A woman provided the sons that were needed to build the economy. She raised the sons that then became the patriarchs and the runners of the economy. Through her “uterine power” a woman reproducing biological units for the economy.

However, her substantial contribution including ” her labor power, her traditional handiwork-making items like clothes and shoes-as well as her
biological contributions in making sons for the labor-intensive economy was neglected.  Foot-binding helped to mystify the process by
which these products of women’s bodies were appropriated.” 

Throughout history, the narrative of the woman raising children and the father providing financially has been presented in an imbalanced manner. As such the role that a woman plays in raising children has been undermined. Her hard years of labor, rearing kids is usually grossly undervalued.


7. Higher family status created a way out of the system:

Although the practice was originally started by upper-class court dancers in the 10th or 11th century, the practice eventually spread to the lowest of classes, until it was finally banned in 1911 after Western missionaries campaigned against it. 

It is interesting to note that at the height of the anti-footbinding campaigns family status was the exit point of this long drawn out history. This is notable in McGowan’s book, where a Christian mother of seven daughters is praised for saying: “my daughters can stay at home and serve me because we can afford to feed them.”

What is clear from this is that those who have financial muscle are able to create options out of a system, whilst those without have their fate locked in.

8. Erasure of ˈwʊməns perspectives in the story telling of this tradition 

With China’s desire to appear modern from the end of the 19th century, “footbinding became the object of a successful eradication campaign which encompassed missionaries in China.”

A custom that was once a symbol and source of national pride quickly became a symbol of shame.  Modern leaders reviled this tradition, it was used as evidence of China’s backwardness, as a sign of cruelty and sexual depravity. Suddenly, China’s backwardness at the time was compared

 “to an old woman, tottering along on bound
feet, unable to run, and hobbled by tradition.”

 Further, academic research such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans has presented footbinding as a despicable and barbaric practice “where women were exclusively victims.” Another theme has focused on footbinding being a sign of patriarchy, a case where women lived “in the grip of male lust.”

Zhang Yun Ying, 75 ©Jo Farell

Ko (a leading scholar on the subject) argues against these “gigantic explanations” an objection which I fully support. She argues that singular explanations on footbinding neglect the complex history and the incentives of the women involved.

There are multiple tonalities to understand the confusing times of footbinding. No singly story or explanation can authentically detail the practice and bring to the surface the voices of the women involved .”

old-lady-bound-feetIt strikes me when I think that the women who were at the center of this history had their own stories. They had personalities, some were strong and reserved or expressive, others were timid.

These interviewees had friends of their own whom they heartily laughed with.


They had preferences and hobbies. We seldom hear their perspectives. Several studies, particularly feminist anthropology has studied footbinding through a preconceived lexicon. By presenting the story through preconceived frameworks, women are again muted in the narrative. And this is how powerful voices and perspectives are lost in history. Simply put, this is how women are erased from history.

What is clear is that footbinding was more than a beauty regimen,  It was a way of life.  For this reason, even though Footbinding was banished in 1912, the feet of young girls continued to be bound all through the 50’s.  For this reason, Ko argues that the end of footbinding was not a clean break upon it’s legislated end. Narratives that seek to advance the idea of a clean transition from “bondage to liberation” neglect the true story. Rather, the process should be seen as a process of “binding-unbinding- binding-unbinding”.

What I am curious to know is what did this “binding-unbinding- binding-unbinding” mean to the women? Women who continued to be cruel to their daughter’s feet? Why did some continue to bind their feet despite it’s banishment, subsequently hiding their feet from the authorities? How did they understand the powerful force that kept this tradition for over ten centuries?

Who were these women and how had they made sense of the world, with their mutilated feet?

Who were these women & what letter would they have written to their daughters about their lives?  


If you are a woman and you are reading this story, let me ask you now, what letter would you write to your daughter of your own life and how would you want the story to be told? Which parts of your life would you ink on paper, ensuring the details are understood. In a world where women continue to be written about, her culture, her beauty, her story I urge you to “plough with your pen” and write your story lest those who follow read of you in gigantic histories alone, forgetting that your soul had a face.

Read more here.

2 thoughts on “Footbinding: Letter to my daughter

  1. Mackie

    Reblogged this on Mac's Notebook and commented:
    “The beauty of culture is undoubtedly it’s uniqueness to outsiders and and it’s beauty to those it belongs to. However culture and customs are at times presented as inevitable. This creates the illusion that culture is intractable, as though cultural practices have no genesis.”


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