Developing from the Tang dynasty, foot binding, together with braid, is generally known as the worst custom that worsens gender inequality in Chinese history. However, the overwhelming majority of women in Chinese history, especially those in upper social classes, suffered from this, to some extent, inhumane convention, until it was finally forbidden by Sun Yat-Sen in 1911 Revolution. “ ‘40 to 50 percent of Chinese women had bound feet in the 19th century,’ according to American author William Rossi, ‘and the figure reached almost 100 percent among the upper economic classes’ ” (“Chinese Girl,” par. 2). Although it is seemingly unreasonable and impossible from contemporary views that such an amazing amounts of women experienced this tradition, the data has proved the surprising prevalence of foot binding.
The process of foot binding involves many steps, finally forcing women’s feet twisted into three-inch “golden lotuses.” Notably during the process, all the toes, except the big toe, will be curled downward and squeezed until they break; after that, “the feet are wrapped tightly with a 3-meter long silk or cotton bandage” (“Broken Soles,” par.4). Imaging that you are forced to walk with a pair of shoes that is shorter than your feet with 5 cm, it is definite that you will feel painful and almost impossible to walk without tottering, not to mention being forced to live with bandage that wrapped your feet to around 15 cm shorter! However, even though presenting great agony for ladies, the necessity of the custom during that era was undeniable. The reasons include not only the impulse of traditional patriarchal culture, but also other unique elements the custom presented.
Particularly, the presence of patriarchal society maintained the tradition of binding feet and made it flourish in ancient Chinese communities. As early as the formation of agricultural society, Chinese developed an idea of patriarchy, which means that “husbands and fathers determined fundamental conditions and key decisions” (“Women in Patriarchal Society,” par. 1). Women, considered as “property,” instead of human, were always controlled and arranged to meet males’ wills in their daily routines, especially connubial relationships. Thus, in order to hold greater control of female members at home, “the binding of foot soon became a prerequisite for marriage,” since it made the women more dependent on others and more subjected on their husbands’ and fathers’ decisions (Crites, par. 2).
In addition to the growing desire of controlling females, symbols of status and chastity that the tradition reflected also contributed to the formation of foot binding. A lady who bound feet cannot work, so only “a man of considerable means” could afford a loss of manual labor, accepting “a wife, concubine, or daughter who couldn’t work” (Crites, par. 2). Besides, a bound foot woman was usually restricted at her house due to the extreme pain when walking even after several years wrapping their feet, prevented from fleeing to other men. Thus, the binding of foot can demonstrate a wife’s chastity and fidelity.
As a result, female members in a feudal age in China suffered from the pain of breaking the bones and repeatedly squeezing of wounds; the reasons of their sufferings contain not only the stubborn idea of patriarchal society, but also the desire of pursuing status and chastity. However, as time goes by and moral standards changes, fortunately, “today foot binding is but a lingering memory of ancient tradition, a story to be found in a dusty book or museum display, and a romantic half-myth that both fascinates and horrifies modern society” (“Chinese Foot Binding,” sec. 5).