Chinese Foot Binding

Chinese Foot Binding

By Fercility JiangUpdated Sep. 15, 2021

Foot binding was the practice of curling young girls' feet to modify their shape. It was prevalent in ancient China.

Foot Binding Showed Beauty and Status

chinese foot binding Chinese foot binding

The bound feet, to about 10 centimeters in size, were considered to be attractive in ancient times due to their small size. With bound feet, a woman's beauty was enhanced and her movement was daintier, which gained the support of both men and women for the practice.

Additionally, it showed a girl's status because the rich didn't usually need to work. However, foot binding restricted women from going out, leaving them at home to serve the family.

Usually Females Had Their Feet Bound

Foot binding began among the Han people. Generally, it was a practice for females. Rich girls would have their feet bound while the poor would not. That's mainly because the rich had servants to serve them since they couldn't walk. The poor girls needed normal feet in order to work.

Process of Foot Binding


  • Warm water to help soften the feet.
  • Six binding cloths of at least 260 centimeters each in length.
  • A needle and thread to help sew up the binding cloth.
  • Cotton to pad the inside of the shoes to avoid rubbing when walking.
  • A pair of scissors to cut the nails.


  • Step 1: Soaking the feet in warm water with herbs and animal blood. This helped to soften the foot to make it easier to bind.
  • Step 2: Curling the last four toes over to the sole of the foot with great force.
  • Step 3: Using binding cloth to tighten the feet, pressing the toes underneath the sole. At the beginning, the feet were tightly bound to get used to the binding, then they would be bound tighter and tighter later on. This process lasted for several days to two months.
  • Step 4: Breaking the toes and arch with force,and then using binding cloth to tighten the feet. The feet needed to be tightened this way until they no longer grew.
    chinese foot binding

Bad Effects on Health

  • Infection was the most common problem with foot binding. As health care conditions were low in ancient times, toes were easily infected and rotted.
  • Foot deformity: Foot binding is actually a practice to bind the toes over to the sole of the foot with force, which deformed the feet.

History of Chinese Foot Binding

Binding Feet to Gain the Emperor's Favor in the 10th Century

The first recorded foot binding started from the Five Dynasties and Ten States in the 10th century and it became prevalent in the Song Dynasty (960–1279).

According to history, an emperor's favorite concubine danced on a gilded lotus flower with bound feet, which gained the emperor's favor. Then other concubines imitated her, making the practice popular from the royal court to the whole country. It was thought to be a sign of beauty.

Binding Feet to Have a Good Marriage Since the 12th Century

Foot binding began in the north of the country and soon reached the south. In the 12th century, it became much more widespread and peaked in the Qing Dynasty.

In order to have a good marriage, girls had to have their feet bound between the ages of 4 and 9. Foot binding also showed a woman's social status because only the very poor didn't need to do it.

Anti-Foot Binding Campaigns Failed Many Times

In the 19th century, many reform-minded Chinese intellectuals began to consider foot binding as a backwardness of China and advocated to abolish the practice. However, any movements to oppose it failed. It was not until 1912 that foot binding was banned by the new Republic of China government.

Famous Opponents of Foot Binding

  • In 1883, Kang Youwei founded the Anti-Foot Binding Society to combat foot binding. He asked his daughters to release their feet as examples. However, the thought of foot binding was too ingrained to be shaken off.
  • In 1902, the Empress Dowager Cixi issued an anti-foot binding edict, but it was soon rescinded.
  • In 1912, Sun Yat-sen outlawed foot binding, and it was not until then that this practice began to die out.

Beautiful Embroideries Inside and Outside

There were certain types of 'arch shoes' (弓鞋 gōngxié /gong-sshyeah/) for women with bound feet. A pair of well-made arch shoes had various embroideries both inside and outside the shoes. Rich women even added some accessories,such as bright pearls in the heels.

Pursuit of Fashion and Beauty

Binding their feet and wearing a corset and high heels were behaviors of women pursuing beauty. They were, to some degree, harming their health. The main differences were that foot binding and wearing corsets were forced while wearing high heels was voluntary.

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