Suffering for Beauty – Foot Binding

How much pain would you be willing to endure to be thought of as beautiful? To what lengths would you be willing to go to ensure that you were desired as a bride? How much trauma would you put your daughter through to see that she attained a good husband?

Chinese footbinding shoes, wikimedia commons

Chinese footbinding shoes, wikimedia commons

These questions may seem a bit outdated today, but not so long ago they were very relevant questions in China. If your novel or story is going to take place in Old China, possibly even Old Chinatown, this is information that you possibly need to research more deeply and use in your story.

Foot binding was practiced by the Chinese for about a thousand years. Why did they do this? How did this practice affect the women of this culture? The painful art of foot binding can be used in your story to add drama and turmoil.

Many of us do certain things to feel attractive. Normally women wear makeup, fix their hair, etc. But how many of you would be willing to permanently disfigure your feet, to break the bones in them in order to squeeze them into little three-inch shoes?

Foot binding began in 10th-century China and was legal. It was required for over a thousand years. If you did not have your feet bound, you would have no hope of finding a husband.

How would you feel as a mother if you had to bind the feet of your little four-year-old daughter? What would you have to do in order to bind her feet?

footbinding, blakemschina


When the foot was first bound, a bandage ten-feet long and two-feet wide was used. Before the foot was bound, the nails were cut as short as possible to try and prevent infection from setting in. The four small toes were broken and forced underneath the foot as the bandages were tightly wound to make the foot narrower.

But what about the big toe? It was made closer to the heel of the foot by bending the arch upward. Sometimes cuts were made in the soles of the feet to make the bandaging process easier. And the bandages were wet when initially put on. They had been soaked in a bowl of herbs and warm animal blood. This was supposed to make the dead flesh fall off. Since the bandages were wet, they would draw up and become even tighter when they dried.

The bandages were tightened each day, and the foot was progressively forced into smaller shoes. Anyway, the feet needed to be cleaned every day. Think about it. Blood and pus would be oozing out of the swollen and inflamed feet. Not only did they need to be cleaned daily, but they would also need ointment and perfume to attempt to hide the stench emanating from them.

How would a mother feel listening to the cries of her small daughter as this horrific thing was done to her feet? Once the bandages were applied, the young child would be forced to walk on her feet, no matter the pain she endured while doing so. I have read accounts of small girls who did cry out from the pain; they were beaten for doing so.

The optimal length of the perfect foot for the Chinese woman was a mere three inches. Women who had their feet bound were basically incapable of walking very long distances. They definitely weren’t capable of running. Home is where she could look forward to spending all of her time.

Did the Chinese who emigrated to America carry on this practice? In 1912, this barbaric practice was outlawed in China, but did the practice stop?

girl writing,

girl writing,

Writing Prompts for Fiction
Imagine you are a young Chinese wife who had come to America with her husband. Your feet had been bound as a child. Now your little girl is three years old. In just one more short year, it will be time to begin binding her feet. When you arrive in America and see that the feet of the young girls here aren’t bound, will you continue the practice? If you do continue the practice, how do people in the town you live look upon what you are doing? Are they accepting of it? Do they speak out against it?

This story could be written from the POV of the mother, or it could be written from the POV of the small child, if her feet are bound. It could even be written from the POV of a neighbor who witnesses what is being done to the child, or from the POV of the town doctor. There are endless possibilities for storylines from this scenario.

Writing Prompts for Nonfiction
You could write about how the tradition of footbinding began, how it affected the women of China, and what happened to finally cause it to be outlawed.

How many women are still alive who went through the traumatic experience of having their feet bound?  Did they have to bind the feet of their daughters?  You could find them, interview them, and write about their experiences.

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Suffering for Beauty – Lip Plates
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Suffering for Beauty – Unique Hair Care for Your Characters
Suffering for Beauty – the Victorian Corset
Suffering for Beauty – High Heels


  1 comment for “Suffering for Beauty – Foot Binding

  1. April 20, 2015 at 6:07 am

    People are capable of such dreadful things. I have a feeling that not all classes bound feet. The peasant class would not – the girls couldn’t work hard enough if crippled.
    Excellent article.

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