Why did Chinese Women Bind Their Feet?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Chinese foot binding is the practice of modifying a woman's feet to make them about 3 inches (7 cm) long. It was once considered erotic and beautiful, though has since been seen as a form of female subjugation. The practice started in the 7th century CE, and despite various calls for reforms, was only banned in the early 1900s. The physical process of footbinding was extremely painful, and usually led to a lifelong disability. Though the practice was primarily restricted to Han ethnic Chinese women, an estimated 2 billion women had their feet bound in the 19th century alone.

A pair of shoes for a woman with bound feet.
A pair of shoes for a woman with bound feet.


The purpose of Chinese foot binding was primarily cosmetic. The tiny feet, called lotus feet, were considered extremely erotic, as was the gait they produced. Women with small feet were seen as delicate, in need of male protection, and aristocratic, since they were unable to do many of the things a servant would do easily. The feet also became a symbol of chastity, since they left the woman unable to go out of the house on her own. Poorer families would often bind the feet of only their eldest daughter so that she could possibly marry up in society.

A group of girls with bound feet.
A group of girls with bound feet.


Women had to start binding their feet very young for the technique to work properly. Most mothers had their daughters' feet bound when they were two to five years old. She, a sister, or a professional foot binder would first soak the foot in a mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften it, and then bend the toes under until they broke. After this, she would break the arch of the foot, and then wrap it tightly in bandages that were also soaked in a blood and herb mixture until the foot formed a triangular shape.

An elderly lady with bound feet.
An elderly lady with bound feet.

As the bones set, the foot would be periodically unwrapped, massaged, and cleaned, and the toenails were trimmed. Since the circulation of the foot was cut off by the bandages, many girls had foot infections, lost toenails, or had toes fall off altogether. After any dead tissue was removed, the foot would then be immediately re-wrapped.


Women with bound feet were unable to put much weight on their feet, and had to walk on their heels. This gave them a tottering gait which was considered very attractive by some. Their feet were usually infected, since it was impossible to cut the bent-under toenails, which could then pierce the skin. It was also very difficult to wash in between the folded skin of the foot, which led to the growth of bacteria. This made the feet smell very bad and sometimes produce discharge, which is why most women with bound feet never took off their shoes.

The deformity of their gait also left women prone to falling and hip and spine problems. One study from the University of San Francisco on osteoporosis in China found that women with these feet were almost twice as likely to experience falls, and were also more likely to have difficulty rising from chairs. They also had more difficulty squatting, which was particularly important for using the restroom before Western-style toilets came to China. These limitations were particularly burdensome for women who had to perform manual labor.


The practice of Chinese foot binding began during the rule of Li Yu when the emperor became attracted to a concubine who had bound her feet tightly for a dance routine. It was originally confined to the imperial court, but later spread to cities and villages. The first calls for reform came a few centuries later in the mid-1600s, and continued periodically until 1912, when it was banned outright. Despite the ban, some women continued to bind their feet secretly, though those who got caught were subject to a fine. The practice finally died out by the 1950s, due to a series of anti-foot binding campaigns from the Nationalist and Communist governments.

Related Practices

Other cultures had and have similarly deforming practices to Chinese foot binding. Skull modification, in which the skull was pressed until it elongated, was practiced among many cultures, including the Incans, Huns, and Australian Aborigines. Many women in European countries and the US deformed their skeletons to the point of injuring their organs by wearing very tight corsets. In modern times, female genital mutilation was and is practiced in many countries in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Lotus feet were considered extremely erotic and beautiful in China.
Lotus feet were considered extremely erotic and beautiful in China.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Upward mobility meant sexual servitude via crippling physical deformity. Of course, nowadays you paint your face, pierce your ears, and whatnot.


I find this practice unbelievable. binding women's feet in order make them more likely to marry into wealth! Surely it should be their mouths!

For those who are offended, it is only a joke. I absolutely do not condone foot binding or any practice that suppresses anyone.


This is weird and why do men think it is attractive?


That has to hurt. But it used to be their culture.


It also ended because they were unable to do labor the government assigned in the 1950s.


I cannot imagine the pain they went through and I cannot believe men thought it was attractive! Although it was good for women's status and development of the ancient Chinese social organization. I also want to add that they used monkey blood and herbs.


I think this whole torturing the body thing to look fashionable or to appear wealthy is ridiculous!

It's unfortunate that females felt they had to do this.

It's also unfortunate that these Chinese women had to do this to be accepted into a wealthy family during those times.


Cafe41- I think this is a sad part of Chinese history, but it is a fascinating account of what women went through to have Chinese bound feet.

If you want additional information on the subject, Dorothy Ko, a Professor at Columbia, wrote a book called, “Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet.


I just wanted to add that the pressure for Chinese woman to have tiny feet was great. It was seen as a chic status symbol to have tiny feet and a definite requirement for women to marry into a wealthy family. This developed the rise in chinese feet binding.

Many women had their feet broken when they were children because the bones were soft and easy to mold. Bandages had to be wrapped on the feet and many children did not wash their feet for a few weeks.

This act of chinese footbinding caused a lot of women to be unable to dance or walk for long periods of time.

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