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Footbinding: From Status Symbol to Subjugation

Legend has it that the origins of footbinding go back as far as the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 B.C.). The Shang Empress had a clubfoot, so she demanded that footbinding be made compulsory in the court.

But historical records from the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) date footbinding as beginning during the reign of Li Yu, who ruled over one region of China between 961-975. It is said his heart was captured by a concubine, Yao Niang, a talented dancer who bound her feet to suggest the shape of a new moon and performed a "lotus dance."

During subsequent dynasties, footbinding became more popular and spread from court circles to the wealthy. Eventually, it moved from the cities to the countryside, where young girls realized that binding their feet could be their passport to social mobility and increased wealth.

When the Manchu nobility came to power in 1644, they tried to ban the practice, but with little success. The first anti-footbinding committee was formed in Shanghai by a British priest in 1874.

But the practice wasn't outlawed until 1912, when the Qing dynasty had already been toppled by a revolution. Beginning in 1915, government inspectors could levy fines on those who continued to bind their feet. But despite these measures, footbinding still continued in various parts of the country.

A year after the Communists came to power in 1949, they too issued their own ban on footbinding. According to the American author William Rossi, who wrote The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, 40 percent to 50 percent of Chinese women had bound feet in the 19th century. For the upper classes, the figure was almost 100 percent.

Some estimate that as many as 2 billion Chinese women broke and bound their feet to attain this agonizing ideal of physical perfection. Author Yang Yang says that women with tiny feet were a status symbol who would bring honor upon the entire clan by their appearance.

"Some married women with bound feet would even get up in the middle of the night to start their toilette, just to ensure they would look good in daytime," he says.

In Liuyicun, the practice persisted so long because of the village's economic prosperity — and its inhabitants' desire for obvious wealth signifiers, like daughters with bound feet.

Some scholars say footbinding deepened female subjugation by making women more dependent on their men folk, restricting their movements and enforcing their chastity, since women with bound feet were physically incapable of venturing far from their homes.

Certainly the "three-inch golden lotuses" were seen as the ultimate erogenous zone, with Qing dynasty pornographic books listing 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet.

For those unfortunate women who paid the ultimate price for beauty, there was little choice involved.

Liuyicun resident Wang Lifen, 79, describes her own attitude as a child, saying, "I didn't want to bind my feet, but the whole village told me that I had to. So I did."

And 86-year-old Zhou Guizhen says, "At that time everybody had bound feet. If you didn't, you'd only be able to marry a tribesman from an ethnic minority."

These women disfigured their feet to guarantee their own future, but according to Yang Yang, this act ultimately consigned them to tragic lives. Most of Liuyicun's bound-feet women were forced to perform hard physical labor in the late 1950s, digging reservoirs, for example — work which was punishing enough for ordinary women, but agonizing for those with tiny, misshapen feet.

Their families also suffered food shortages as they were often unable to fulfill their production quotas at work, or walk into the mountains to pick vegetables and fruit like other mothers.

"Their tiny feet sealed their tragic fates," Yang says.

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Louisa Lim
Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.