Friday, May 9, 2008

Suffering for the Sake of Beauty: Chinese Foot Binding

The ancient practice of Chinese foot binding is a classic example of how women will suffer for the sake of beauty. Recently I attended a lecture on Chinese foot binding at the Bata Shoe Museum. The speaker was Joan Judge, a York University professor, who launched her book "Foot Binding and Chinese Modernity: The Demise of One of History's Most Enigmatic Practices" by Stanford University Press, 2008.

Foot binding was practiced in China for about 1000 years until the beginning of the 20th century. Although there are few written records, the practice has been attributed to a dancer by the name of Yaoniang in 930 AD. Initially, food binding was confined to dancers and courtesans but gradually women of the upper classes adopted it and tiny, bound feet became a prized attribute in selecting a bride. The tiny lotus foot, a symbol of beauty, was an erotic attraction to men. Approximately 50-80% of Chinese women had bound feet in the 18th century.

This woman to woman practice (men were not involved in any way) began when a girl was 5 or 6 years old. Her mother would bind the girl's feet in a bandage 10 cm by 4 m long. The toes would be broken and pushed under with the toe and heel forced together to mold the foot into an ideal lotus shape with a pronounced arch, a pointed toe, and ideally a length of 3 inches. These bandages had to be worn continually and were perfumed to cover up the smell of rotting flesh. On top of the bandages were layers of wrapping. Foot binding was banned in the early part of the 20th century as a result of political, social and educational reforms in China (which is the subject of Joan Judge's book).

After Joan's talk, the audience initiated a discussion of the extremes of beauty that modern women subject themselves to. High heels seem to be de rigeur at fashionable galas and soirees. I'd always considered myself fairly sensible on that account, except when I found myself with aching feet at a performance of the ballet Cinderella (the ultimate irony!). I was wearing a pair of beige 3-inch heels that looked fabulous but left me crippled by my shoes. And even though I sat through the performance with my shoes off, as the hours passed I could barely mince along the few steps to the lounge. There I was unable to walk and was suffering for the sake of beauty, just like a Chinese woman with bound feet!

Bata Shoe Museum
327 Bloor Street West