The Peculiar History of Foot Binding in China

Historians in the News
tags: China, foot binding

Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees The China Channel. 

For around ten centuries, successive generations of Chinese women endured a practice when, as children, their feet were systematically broken and shaped in such a way that they resembled hooves. The tradition, known as foot binding, eventually came to symbolize China's backwardness, a relic from the country's distant past....

What exactly are bound feet, and why did they become such an enduring part of the Chinese world? To get a little more information, I talked to Wang Ping, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Macalaster College  and the author of Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China, a 2002 history of the practice. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:

When—and why—did the practice of foot binding begin?

The first recorded binding occurred in the Five Dynasties and Ten States period in the 10th century. According to the story, an emperor had a favorite concubine, a dancer who built a gilded stage in the shape of a lotus flower. When she bound her feet into a hoof-like shape and danced on the lotus, the practice became very fashionable; after all, she was the emperor's favorite concubine and the other concubines attempted to imitate her in order to gain the emperor's favor. So foot binding started with the royal court and then spread throughout China, beginning in the south of the country and soon reaching the north....

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