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Chinese Custom of Binding Women's Feet

In China, till early 20th century, women with tiny narrow feet were considered to be beautiful and highly attractive. Therefore, feet of young girls were wraped in tight bindings to keep them smalls. However, these women had to bear constant excruciating pain. Fiction author Jung Chang writes in her memoir of the excruciatingly painful Chinese custom of binding women’s feet:

“My grandmother was a beauty. She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occa­sion demanded, which was most of the time, but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She was petite, about five feet three inches, with a slender figure and sloping shoulders, which were considered the ideal.

“But her greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese ‘three-inch golden lilies’ (san-tsun-gin-lian). This meant she walked ‘like a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze,’ as Chinese connoisseurs of women traditionally put it. The sight of a woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker.

“My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother, who herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inward and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain.

“The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing it for her own future happiness.

“In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegrooms family did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to bring shame on the husband’s house­hold. The mother-in-law would lift the hem of the bride’s long skirt, and if the feet were more than about four inches long, she would throw down the skirt in a demonstrative gesture of contempt and stalk off, leaving the bride to the critical gaze of the wedding guests, who would stare at her feet and insultingly mutter their disdain. Some­times a mother would take pity on her daughter and remove the bind­ing cloth; but when the child grew up and had to endure the contempt of her husband’s family and the disapproval of society, she would blame her mother for having been too weak.

“The practice of binding feet was originally introduced about a thousand years ago, allegedly by a concubine of the emperor. Not only was the sight of women hobbling on tiny feet considered erotic, men would also get excited playing with bound feet, which were always hidden in embroidered silk shoes. Women could not remove the binding cloths even when they were adults, as their feet would start growing again. The binding could only be loosened temporarily at night in bed, when they would put on soft-soled shoes. Men rarely saw naked bound feet, which were usually covered in rotting flesh and stank when the bindings were removed. As a child, I can remember my grand- mother being in constant pain. When we came home from shopping, the first thing she would do was soak her feet in a bowl of hot water, sighing with relief as she did so. Then she would set about cutting off pieces of dead skin. The pain came not only from the bro­ken bones, but also from her toenails, which grew into the balls of her feet.

“In fact, my grandmother’s feet were bound just at the moment when foot-binding was disappearing for good. By the time her sister was born in 1917, the practice had virtually been abandoned, so she escaped the torment.”

Author: Jung Chang

Title: Wild Swans: The Three Daughters of China

Publisher: First Touchstone Edition

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In China, till early 20th century, women with tiny narrow feet were considered to be beautiful and highly attractive. Therefore, feet of young girls were wraped in tight bindings to keep them smalls. However, these women had to bear constant excruciating pain. Fiction author Jung Chang writes in her memoir of the excruciatingly painful Chinese custom of binding women’s feet:

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