China, 19th century

[b]Left:[/b] Donated by Mrs M. W. Cordy in 1997; 1997.25.2[br][b]Right:[/b] Collected and purchased from Robert T. Turley in 1896; 1896.62.104Left: Donated by Mrs M. W. Cordy in 1997; 1997.25.2
Right: Collected and purchased from Robert T. Turley in 1896; 1896.62.104
On the left is a cast of a 15-year old girl's foot, taken in the mid-19th century, dressed in traditional embroidered silk ankle wrappings and specially made shoes. By this age, the girls' feet had been bound for more than ten years and the shoes are tiny, just 9 cm (3.5 inches) long. On the right is a plaster model of a woman's foot, made in the late 19th century, showing the extreme physical deformities caused by binding.

The practice of foot binding in girls is unique to China and may have started among the elite classes as early as the 10th century although it only became widespread during the 12th century. Its purpose was to severely restrict the growth of the foot as a sign of beauty, wealth and discipline. A woman with bound feet could not walk properly and therefore must have had no financial need to work. She was also considered appealing as a marriage partner because her physical impairment indicated she was virtuous and probably a virgin.

The process was initiated at 3–6 years of age when all the girl's toes apart from the big toe were folded down under the sole of the foot and bandaged tightly in that position. The bones of the toes broke and the instep was artificially curved and raised. This can be seen in the model here. Over time the bandages were removed and replaced as the bones healed and settled into their new position so that the foot would remain the same size throughout the girl's adult life. Great emphasis was put on achieving the perfect arch, known as the 'lotus foot'. Mothers stove to give their daughters a 'silver lotus foot', measuring no more than 4 inches in length, or the ultimate 'gold lotus foot', measuring no more than 3 inches in length. These examples measuring between 3.3 and 3.5 inches are examples of such desired shapes.

A girl or woman with bound feet was effectively disabled for life. She would need assistance to sit and the only way of walking was on the heels but even this proved very painful and problematic in terms of balance. Other problems she might encounter included infection, paralysis, rotting and muscular dystrophy. Despite this, bound feet and the special 'lotus' shoes became fetishized in China. Men found them attractive and sensuous, and prostitutes and concubines adopted the practice to increase their allure.

Some largely unsuccessful attempts had been made to abolish foot binding, notably by the Manchus in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century and increased contact with the West that the practice declined. It was officially banned with the new Chinese Republic in 1911. However it continued in some rural provinces beyond this and as recently as the late 1990s, nearly 40% of Chinese women older than 80 years of age had their feet bound, as did 17% of women in their seventies.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England