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Bound to Be Beautiful: Foot Binding in Ancient China

Dates: June 4, 2005–August 28, 2005

Bound to Be Beautiful: Footbinding in Ancient China is a traveling exhibit from the collection of John K. Fong featuring many pairs of the beautiful and elaborate shoes worn by Chinese women to showcase their tiny feet, along with items used in construction of the footwear.

Over sixty objects include vintage photographs and related works of art in wood, metal and ivory.

Throughout history, beauty has been a major goal. However, many cultures and peoples have different views of what beauty is. In the US in the nineteenth century, corsets that made a lady’s waist as small as possible were considered to be a beauty requirement. Body piercing and tattoos fall under the same category, although the health consequences are not as severe. Pain has been suffered for centuries by women and men to achieve perceived beauty. Probably one of the most detrimental practices was one that women in China performed for nearly one thousand years. Footbinding, a long and painful process, produced tiny feet in women. Modern people may find it hard to understand, but the reasons for footbinding went deeper than fashion and reflected the role of women in Chinese society and Confucian moral values for women of domesticity, motherhood, and handwork. It was necessary for a woman to have bound feet in order to marry well and achieve a good and moral life.


The first definite evidence of footbinding dates from the Song dynasty (960–1279) from the tomb of Lady Huang, the wife of an Imperial clansmen. Lady Huang’s feet were bound in strips of gauze and she wore shoes only five-and-a-half inches long. Folklore says the practice started when a royal concubine had her feet bound because her prince loved her little feet and her ability to dance and walk so gracefully that she appeared to be “skimming over the top of golden lilies,” and others copied this desirable look. It may also have developed from popular dances that came to China during the Tang dynasty (618–907) from western regions along the Silk Road. Richly embroidered slippers also came to China at this time. The lotus, the sacred flower associated with Buddhism, became associated with the small shoes.

By the twelfth century, foot binding was widespread among the upper classes, particularly the ethnic Han Chinese, and it spread to other ethnic groups as well. In 1644, the Manchus, a northern people, took over, initiating the Qing dynasty, 1644–1911. The first Qing emperor banned footbinding, but it was so deeply rooted in Chinese culture that the ban was rescinded. In the nineteenth century, as foreign influences began to be felt in China, and the lower classes began to imitate their wealthier neighbors, footbinding declined among upper class women. After the nationalist revolution in 1911, footbinding was again officially banned, and the practice declined greatly, except for small groups living in the countryside.

Motherhood was an ideal role for Chinese women, and a mother’s goal for a daughter was a good marriage. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet, beginning between about five and seven years of age. All toes except the big toe were folded under the foot and pulled back toward the arch, held in place by a long strip of cloth, creating a steep, concave arch and fold in the center of the sole. The front of the heel bone was pushed up, and the top of the foot became rounded and steeply angled. Because the cloth bindings were worn night and day and only removed for cleaning the foot, some muscles and tendons became stretched and some contracted, forcing bones into different positions and resulting in a reshaped or deformed foot that was shorter and had a narrower sole. The process was very painful and after it spread to the lower classes, meant that daughters could not perform the most strenuous field tasks. Walking changed to a shuffling gait. After body growth stopped, binding continued throughout life because the cloth strips and specially shaped shoes were necessary for support of the foot.

Footbinding was associated with another important role of Chinese women, domestic production of textiles, and the making of shoes. Social customs of exchanging shoes with female relatives and female in-laws are reflected in shoes with elaborately embroidered decorative patterns, not only on the sides but also on the soles. Colors and styles tell us much about the women who made and wore the shoes with pride. Some indicate regional styles and many bear Buddhist symbols for longevity and wisdom, or animal motifs such as bats, a visual pun for happiness. Shoes for special occasions include mourning shoes and wedding shoes, and women also made accessories such as leggings, anklets and leg sashes. Tiny votive shoes, placed on a household altar, also showcased the domestic skills of the women who made them.

In addition to a variety of lotus shoes, accessories, and tools to make them, the exhibit includes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of Chinese women. The exhibition hopes that viewers will not only learn a bit of Chinese history, custom and folklore but also ponder the customs of today’s society, which are potentially debilitating.

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