According to historical accounts, foot binding appeared in China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1276 AD).
The process of foot binding often started between the ages of four and seven. Feet were soaked in a blood and herb mixture. Toes were broken. Then the arch was broken. There was extreme pain since no pain relief was used. It is estimated that in a thousand years about two billion women went through the process.
Manchu women did not bind their feet, and the Manchu leaders of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911 AD) attempted, but with little success, to stop foot binding among the mostly Han (the majority in China) women who continued the practice.
In 1928, the Nationalist government announced plans to do away with foot binding. This attempt to end foot binding met with mixed success. In rural areas, large feet were still considered unattractive and unacceptable and the practice of foot binding continued.
While working in China for National Geographic Magazine on a three part Marco Polo series, Michael Yamashita, a veteran photographer, went in search of women who had bound feet. He found them living in remote urban villages. Yamashita’s book Marco Polo: A Photographer’s Journey was published April 5, 2011.
Even in 19th century San Francisco, there were Chinese girls and women with bound feet. Source: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
In most of China, like all countries, social and sexual customs resist rapid change. For millions of women, the practice would continue until 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party came to power under Mao. That is when the popularity of foot binding to enhance a woman’s beauty—according to the men who wanted women to suffer for what they thought was beauty—ended.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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