The Cultural Insights of Footbinding

The Chinese practiced foot binding for over a thousand years in the Song and T’ang dynasties. Some people found it very cruel, and then some found it fascinating. The ‘Golden Lotuses’ were the art and symbol for the wealth and beauty of ancient China. For any other culture, one would ask what foot binding is? Or, how did foot binding in Ancient China compare to John Fairbank’s text “Footbinding”? Also, how does the history of ancient China and Fairbank’s text differ and how are they similar?

Then, how can foot binding be defended? In this paper, one will be able to understand the cultural significance of foot binding. Foot binding was a mother’s way to prepare her daughter for her future. The mother would start to bind the daughter’s feet between the ages of five and eight, when the feet and bones were still developing. At a young age the daughters were unaware of what their future held, and why their mother put them through so much pain. After the first two years the pain would lessen for the daughters.

Constricting the feet to a three inch size was only the beginning of the daughter’s worries. The bound feet required daily care which included; feet being washed and manicured while staying bounded. The mother would be the one who ultimately took care of the daughter and grooming her feet. In Fairbank’s text it says “When I was seven [said one women to Ida Pruitt], my mother… washed and placed alum on my feet and cut the toenails. She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten inches wide, doing the right foot first then the left.

She… ordered me to walk but when I did the pain proved unbearable. The night … my feet felt on fire and I couldn’t sleep; mother struck me for crying. On the following days, I tried to hide but was forced to walk on my feet … after several months all toes but the big one was pressed against the inner surface… mother would remove the binding and wipe the blood and pus which dripped from my feet. She told me that only the removal of the flesh could my feet become slender…. Every two weeks I changed to new shoes.

Each new pair was one-two-tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one… In summer my feet smelled offensively because of pus and blood; In winter my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation … four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars… it took two years it achieve the three inch model… my shanks were thin, my feet became humped, ugly and odoriferous. ” (405) Bounding the feet made the daughters less useful in family work, and the daughters would become very dependent on help from others.

Once people in China became accustom to the practice of foot binding, the ‘Golden Lotuses’ became an essential part of being able to get a suitable husband. John Fairbank accounts in his text, “Footbinding” how women in ancient China were represented. Fairbank’s text was the study of ancient China, and the subjection of women during that time. In the text, Fairbank expressed how the women fit into social classes, and how they were not equal to males in the society. The feet being the first symbol of women, marriage followed second.

The feet were a prestigious item to a female, and without the bound feet they would not be able to achieve a good marriage. Clearly stated in the following poem, “Lotus blossoms in shoes most tight, As if she could stand on autumnal waters! Her shoe tips do not peek beyond the skirt, Fearful lest the tiny embroideries be seen. ”(404) it becomes clear that the binding of the feet was a sexual fetish for the Chinese man. The bound feet became a sort of chastity to the female, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless.

Unlike the chastity belt, the lotus feet could not be unlocked. “In a society with a cult of female chastity, one primary purpose of foot binding was to limit mobility, radically modifying the means by which females were permitted to become a part of the world at large. Painfully and forcibly reducing a little girl’s foot at the precise point in her life when she was expected to begin understanding the Confucian discipline of maintaining a “mindful body” reinforced her acceptance of the practice.

A woman’s dependency on her family was made utterly manifest in her disabled feet, and she was fully expected to acquire considerable control over her pain, reflecting the ideals of civility, a mindful body and concealment. One of the primary allures of foot binding lay in its concealment, and to be acceptable a pair of small feet had to be covered by binder, socks and shoes,” Females had to become dependent on her husband when she would move away from her family; thus leaving the male with complete domination in all aspects of the relationship.

Throughout research it is apparent that the practice of foot binding was all relatively the same. In both Fairbank’s and in other readings on foot binding, mothers bound their daughter’s feet to prepare them for wealth and marriage. As incomprehensible as foot binding may seem it actually was a way for mothers and daughter to bond. The action of foot binding resulted in deforming their feet thus crippling them from preforming daily duties. It was found by researchers that foot binding could only be defended by people who understood their customs. What is important to a social group is not only survival, but the survival of patterns of behavior which are considered “right” within the context of the culture. That foot binding was legitimized by scholars and tied to the custom of the patriarchal Chinese family, perpetuating the kinship system, was no adequate stronghold against the forward momentum of history, education, labor opportunities, and capitalist individualism. ” One could disagree with the act of foot binding, unless a person dealt with foot binding first hand.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the act of foot binding significantly declined. One can see foot binding had many similarities and very few differences between Fairbank’s text and other accounts of foot binding. It was a cultural act of royal and upper class mothers, to prepare their daughters for an arranged marriage. Today in China the last surviving practitioners are handicapped by old age and arthritis, and these living ‘Golden Lotuses’ are all that remains of a vanished phenomenon.

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