Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China

Wyatt Redd - December 1, 2017

When you think of medieval China many things come to mind like mighty emperors, warrior monks, and robed Confucian officials. But one of the most horrifying and enduring associations with the period in the popular imagination has to be foot binding. Foot binding was practiced in China for almost 1,000 years. It was a symbol of status, and, bound feet were even considered extremely erotic. But what exactly did foot binding involve? Why would anything so horrible be so popular? And why would men find it sexy?

The process of foot binding usually started while a girl was very young, typically between four and nine years old. Richer families usually preferred to have a professional footbinder, since they would be less likely to be moved by the girl’s cries than her mother or a relative. This was a real concern, as failing to bind the feet properly the first time would mean that it needed to be done again. And the process was so horrifyingly painful that it’s hard to imagine that a relative could bear to do it themselves. But in families that couldn’t afford a professional, they often did.

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
Chinese women with bound feet, Wikimedia Commons.

First, the feet were soaked in a mixture of animal blood and herbs that was thought to soften the feet and make them easier to bind. After being bathed, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to stop them from growing into the skin after the binding. Then the toes were pushed down and twisted into the bottom of the feet, shattering the bones. The loosened bones were then squeezed together as tightly as possible and bound up with cloth. Once the cloth was wrapped tightly, it was sewn together to prevent the girl from trying to loosen it.

Over the next few months, the feet would be broken and rebound at least a few times a week, keeping the bones from healing back into their natural position. As the feet began to swell with blood, the toenails and skin of the toes would begin to die, and the binder often had to bathe the feet in a solution that was designed to dissolve the dead flesh. Infection was a frequent concern, and toes would sometimes become so infected that they actually dropped off of the foot. But this was usually considered a good thing since it made it possible to make the feet even smaller.

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
An X-Ray of two bound feet, Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, around 10% of girls subjected to footbinding died from infections. And the process usually resulted in life-long health problems for those who survived. The folds of the feet often attracted fungal infections, and observers stated that the bound feet often smelt terrible when the bindings were removed. It often took years for the bones in the feet to heal, and girls risked breaking them while walking until they were well into adulthood. As the girls grew into old age, the difficulty of balancing on bound feet made them more likely to fall and break their hips. So, why would anyone do it?

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
A Qing Dynasty woman binding her feet, Pinterest.

Legend states that the practice of footbinding was inspired by a 10th-century dancer, whose small feet entranced the Emperor. Wanting to emulate this dancer’s beauty- and perhaps attract the attention of an Emperor themselves- women began binding their own feet to make them as small as possible. Of course, most historians agree that this legend has little to do with reality. But it does offer some insight into the cultural attitudes towards foot binding. Obviously, small feet were considered very attractive in Imperial China, similar to the way that Victorian men idolized an unnaturally thin waist.

And small feet were considered not just visually stimulating, but a sign of refinement and sophistication. Women with bound feet were usually unable to walk normally. Instead, balancing on bound feet required careful, short steps. So women who had undergone the procedure often couldn’t work as effectively in the fields. A distinction grew between women with bound feet who families could afford to keep out of the field and women with natural feet who were usually agricultural workers like most of Chinese society. Bound feet became a symbol of status, and as is often the case with status symbols, attractive.

Bound feet also offered an air of mystery. Because the feet were tightly bound, the only time someone would see a woman’s feet were in the bedroom. In the same way that seeing a Victorian women’s ankles were considered scandalous and even erotic, men in China fantasized about seeing women’s bare feet. Bare feet were never depicted in art, even when the subject was painted nude. In many ways, the feet were considered the most intimate part of the body. The allure of the feet was in the fact that men never really saw them. The mystery made the feet an object of taboo speculation and desire.

In fact, bound feet were considered so erotic that a Qing Dynasty sex manual lists 48 different ways to incorporate them into sex. Even the foul smell caused by fungal infections in the folds of the feet was appealing to some men. And others argued that the folds somehow stimulated the growth of folds in the vagina and increased the thickness of the hips, making sex more pleasurable when your partner had bound feet. Bound feet had such erotic appeal that the size of a woman’s feet was even judged and separated into categories.

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
A “golden lotus” foot and slipper, Harvard.

The perfect size of a foot was considered to be around three Chinese inches. Any foot this size or under was classified as a “golden lotus“. The next category started at four inches and was called a “silver lotus.” And any woman with feet over five inches was considered an “iron lotus.” The closer a woman’s feet were to the “golden lotus,” the more likely she was to get married. Thus, the foot-binding process focused on making the feet as close to a golden lotus as possible. And from the 10th century to the 20th century the golden lotus remained the standard for beauty in China.

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
A Chinese family, Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that the practice endured for almost a millennia, and the fact that female relatives often performed the breaking, suggests that women saw value in it as well. Women likely realized that their daughters would be able to secure better marriages if they had bound feet. And in a society where one of the only avenues of social advancement for women was through marriage, foot binding may have been seen as necessary for a girl’s future. But even if women didn’t want to bind their daughters’ feet, they had little choice.

Chinese society was, and largely remains, strictly organized on Confucian principles. Named after the Chinese philosopher Confucius, Confucianism teaches that society is based on obligations. Sons and daughters owe respect and obedience to their parents, and their parents owe obedience to their rulers, who owe obedience to heaven. Stepping outside of the bounds of obedience was the worst sin that someone could commit. So, challenging the traditional practice of footbinding was unthinkable for most women. And some historians have argued that the practice was actually created specifically to prevent women from living independently from their family.

Also Read: What it was like Growing up in Ancient China?

Obviously, a woman with bound feet would find it hard to make a living outside of the home. Not only would it be hard to work, but the physical difficulty of walking away from home meant that women with bound feet would find it hard to even leave in the first place. Thus, footbinding may have been a way to ensure that women depended on their family to survive and were unable to leave the house until their father arranged a marriage for them. Once in a new household, they would then be dependent on their husband and his family.

For men, a woman with bound feet was attractive for marriage not just because the feet themselves were erotic, but because they knew the woman would be obedient as a wife. Of course, the truth is that a number of different factors probably played some role in the popularity of footbinding. It was a way to seem more feminine, desirable, and civilized. And it was also a sign of obedience and commitment to the traditional Confucian ideal of sacrifice for the sake of your family. And in many ways, women saw the pain of foot binding as the cost they needed to pay for beauty and social standing.

Why the Excruciating Process of Bound Feet Was Considered Extremely Erotic In China
Elderly Chinese woman who still displays bound feet, Flickr.

Of course, it’s hard to separate footbinding from the element of sexual desire. For whatever reason, men desired women with smaller feet. And that desire made women with smaller feet more likely to get married. In a society where marriage was the ultimate goal imposed on women, this created an incentive for women to participate in foot binding. And this strange system that tied status and sexuality to the size of a woman’s feet lasted for a very long time. Even today, you can find elderly women in China with bound feet, a living reminder of the sometimes brutal standards of beauty that society can place on women.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Business Insider – The Disturbing Reason for The Ancient Chinese Practice of Foot-Binding

CNN – Work, Not Sex? The Real Reason Chinese Women Bound Their Feet

ThoughtCo – The History of Foot Binding in China

Maidstone Museum – The Golden Lotus: Beauty vs Brutality

China Highlights – Discover Foot Binding in Shanghai – the Culture of 4-Inch Feet

Live Science – Ming Dynasty Skeletons Reveal Secrets of Foot-Binding

University Of Stanford – Foot Binding And A Biological Approach To The Study Of Chinese Culture