How China Finally Ended Foot Binding
Foot binding or chanzu is an ancient Chinese tradition of forced deformity that passed generationally from mother to daughter. The extinction of the practice would be one of the few great success stories of the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China on the mainland.
Here, we look at how Chinese society, prodded by Christian missionaries and western-minded reformers, finally stamped out a tradition that survived multiple dynasties and lasted for nearly a thousand years.
What is Foot Binding
The first things I want to say about foot binding is that not every woman practiced it. And not every woman practiced it the same way through the years.
We don't know why or how it started, either. There are some records dating back as far as the Han Dynasty 2,800 years ago showing a cultural preference for smaller feet.
During the Tang Dynasty of the 7th-10th centuries, a scholar writes of small-feet slave dancers spreading the practice country-wide. During the Song Dynasty of the 10th century, Prince Li Yu is written to have had a fetish for small feet and made his concubine Yao Niang do a toe dance with bound feet.
However it started and spread, it was already a well-established practice by the 14th century. Friar Odoric of Pordenone, an Italian who traveled through northern China for three years in the 1300s wrote:
And with the women of great beauty is to have little feet; and for this reason mothers are accustomed, as soon as girls are born to them, to swathe their feet tightly so that they never grow in the least.
This is a rather dry description of what actually happens. Like I said earlier, the way it has been done differs over the years. Most of what we know about foot binding is based on studies of women done during the Republican era of the 1920s-30s. Historical descriptions of the practice were written by men and often were coated in flowery and poetic language: "slender", "pointed", "shaped like lotus and water chestnuts".
It appears that early on, the binding was mostly to make the foot pointer and more narrow (shaped kind of like today's heels). Later on, they attempted to achieve a sort of "arched" shape. The binding starts before the age of 10, usually between the ages of five and seven. In the latter form of foot binding (the arched shape), binders fold the second through fifth toes underneath the sole while at the same time bringing the front of the foot as close to the heel as possible.
This is done through the inhibition of bone growth, the alteration of ligaments and tendons, and changing the direction of angles - NOT by breaking bones as is sometimes claimed. After binding, the foot is wrapped in bandages and will require washing and re-bandaging for the rest of the woman's life. Benefits include sexual fetish and the image of higher status. Drawbacks include pain, disability, deformity, immobility, isolation, open wounds, septicemia, arthritis, gangrene, skin infections, possible paralysis, rotten flesh, and a reported 10% death rate in girls undergoing the process. Sounds like a fair trade to me! (Sarcasm by the way.)
At its peak, foot binding was prevalent in both the higher and middle classes. Even peasant and servant women would have their feet bound - though this only applied for cases where farming did not require wet feet (i.e. no rice paddies). Wet farming and bound feet will quickly lead to infections.
How prevalent was foot binding in Han society? (It was never practiced outside the Han ethnic group - and even a number of sub-ethnic cultural groups like the Hakka never practiced it.) Various estimations of graveyards and historical accounts count about 50% of Han society women. One survey of a small village in 1929 (1,736 women, 515 families) found that some 99% of women 40 and over had their feet bound. For women 30 years and over, the percentage was 95%. This was 1929. Babe Ruth was hitting home runs for the Yankees at the same time!
Banning Foot Binding
Much like many things in culture, foot binding as a practice ebbed and flowed throughout the dynasties. The foreign Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty advocated for it. The Chinese Ming Dynasty did not really care for it - their palace women did not have their feet bound - but they allowed their subjects to practice it.
The Manchu people of the Qing Dynasty never did it, abhorred the process and actively tried to ban it. The Shunzhi Emperor, the third of the dynasty, issued an edict against it in 1645, his second year as ruler. The Kangxi Emperor tried again in 1662 but after 6 years he gave up and withdrew the ban. The Manchu could get the Chinese men to shave their heads but failed to get the Chinese women to give up binding their feet.
But then came the times of Chinese decline. The late 1800s were dark times for China - a time it calls its "Century of Humiliation". The Qing Dynasty's defeat in the 1842 Opium War and then in the First Sino-Japanese War opened up a new time of reflection, with Chinese society questioning their traditional, once-inviolable values.
Western foreigners kicked off what is called the anti-foot binding movement. The movement was driven by Christian missionary and has many similarities with the abolition movement. The first recorded organization was founded in 1874 in what is today the city of Xiamen, Jie Chan Zu Hui. It caught the attention of Chinese reformers, including reformer Kang Youwei, who started one of his own in Guangzhou in 1883.
In 1895, Alicia Little, wife of prominent British writer Archibald Little, along with other prominent missionary wives from the West founded the Natural Foot Society (Tian Zu Hui). Not specifically a Christian society (Alicia apparently did not hold high views of religion), this unaffiliated nature helped the society dodge the issues of infiltration from the West. This organization focused on the foot binding practice. Nothing else. They attracted attention from leading Chinese reformers, who helped along with their cause. The ailing Qing bureaucracy on the other hand did little to help.
The Campaign and the Results
Anti-foot binders took a three pronged approach to stamping out the practice:
First, an education campaign that focused on two main messages: Other countries did not bind the feet of their women. By practicing foot binding, China was "losing face" in the international community.
Second, there are many advantages of natural feet - like the ones above. They would organize large events where people can see raw photos and X-rays of bound feet. The very name Tian Zu Hui, means "Heavenly Foot Society", implies that natural feet are from Heaven and are better.
Third, the movement established and spun off hundreds of grassroots natural foot societies. Society members promised that they would not practice foot binding and also not allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.
This coordinated movement worked in harmony with a cultural openness to new things - and foot binding began to rapidly vanish from society. After the Qing Dynasty's fall, leadership in the movement passed from western missionaries to the Chinese themselves.
The new Republic of China government in 1915 began handing out fines for violations and things progressed rapidly there. The same village that bound the feet of 99% of its women born in 1889 and 95% in 1899 went to 0% in 1919. The practice did persist through the 1930s in some isolated areas - but that was it.
The banning of the cultural foot-binding practice is a rare documented success taking place at a time when Chinese society did not have all that much to celebrate. It is estimated that some 2 billion women had their feet bound over the years from 949 to 1950. Foot binding is a tradition that lasted 1,000 years. It died out in just twenty.
It is indisputable that western missionaries kicked off its abolition, but the speed with which the practice died out shows that it tapped popular feeling. The fact is that people were long, long ready to move on from this practice. And so they did.