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Chinese footbinding was about work, not sex—and it was complicated

Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Productivity tool?
By Ilaria Maria Sala
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Was one of the cruelest ways of making women conform to crazy beauty standards about attractiveness for the marriage market, or was its endurance actually due to economic reasons? A series of recent studies argues that the practice was as much about women’s earnings, as about ideas of beauty.

Footbinding, a Chinese custom that lasted a little less than 1,000 years, has gone down in human memory as one of the most severe forms of female body modification carried out in the name of seductiveness. It required turning women’s feet into three-inch “golden lotuses” by folding the toes under the foot and securing them with long strips of sturdy cotton.

Mothers and grandmothers would bind their daughters’ feet when they were around five years of age, in order to prevent the foot’s natural growth. In many cases, the foot arch would break, drawing the heel and the toes into contact, and turning the foot into a tiny stump that made adult women totter atop tiny embroidered silk shoes. For women whose feet had been broken, unbinding them would be as painful as the binding had been, and it would not result in regaining full normal mobility. Women would be left unable to walk long distances unaided, run or carry heavy weights.

From ancient erotic paintings (warning: explicit) and poems it has long been inferred that men found women’s stunted feet highly attractive, especially as most Chinese women rich enough to afford it would submit their little girls to this brutal pain. The practice is believed to have started in the “entertainment quarters” of the Chinese elite—among dancers, sex workers and courtesans—some time in the late Tang (618-907) or early Song Dynasty (960-1279) and to have then influenced the sexual taste of the upper classes of the time. As dancers and entertainers were the subject of men’s admiration, the reasoning goes, aristocratic women started binding their own and their daughters’ feet too. Peasant women initially shunned the practice, which made laboring in the fields excruciating, but as foot binding became widespread, all social classes adopted it.

A number of recently published studies have a novel interpretation, arguing that while attraction might have been the initial factor, over its long history the custom evolved into a tool to control women’s sedentary labor, in particular that of young rural women, with significant geographical variations.

One recent study that challenges the long-held sexual attractiveness assumption, by Harvard University anthropologist Melissa Brown and independent data scientist Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips, suggests that girls’ reduced mobility was actually an economic guarantee for both their natal family and the one they would eventually marry into. A woman whose feet did not allow her to walk too far, the study maintains, would stay at home and spin thread, weave or embroider, allowing the family to sell the product of her labor for cash. “A fully mobile woman, on the other hand, might decide to take a stroll instead of sticking to house-bound work day after day. Especially a young child, harder to convince to be home-bound, would instead sit at home and spin thread,” Brown told Quartz.

Also, she adds, one key element that hasn’t been given sufficient attention so far is that most girls with bound feet “would unbind their feet at least once in their lives: a lot of this unbinding happened well before marriage. “Then, shortly before marriage, women would bind their feet again, and keep them bound: “Families wanted to prove to the families of potential husbands that their women could work a lot. So the feet would be bound,” says the academic. The interviews also showed that many women who had previously had bound feet, would marry with their feet unbound.

In sync with these findings is research presented last month (pdf) by economists Xinyu Fan, from UCLA, and Lingwei Wu from the University of Bonn, which examined changes in the practice across time and region. They found that areas where cotton grew, and therefore paid textile work would be more common, were associated with more foot binding. “Rice (a major labor-intensive crop) relative to wheat predicts less foot-binding prevalence, while a greater suitability for cotton (a dominant high-value handicraft fiber) predicts more foot-binding intensity,” they wrote.  A similar argument has previously been made in another academic study, published by anthropologists Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates, of McGill University and Central Michigan University respectively, in their book “Bound Feet, Young Hands.” (The authors and Brown collaborated on forming the dataset on which both sets of researchers rely.)

What has made these assumption-shattering discoveries possible is strikingly simple: “We asked the women in question,” says Brown.

The research was conducted by interviewing thousands of elderly Chinese women whose feet, or those of their female relatives, had been bound before 1950, when the practice was definitely outlawed. They then ran statistics that showed that marriage in areas where the incidence of foot binding was very high would happen at a later stage, as “families needed the income from their daughters.” And even if the women themselves in this late stage of the crippling custom believed it was for marriage purposes, it was actually about enhancing a bride’s attractiveness from an economic point of view, not just a physical one. “The kind of commercial work women were doing was actually in a huge range,” says Brown: “from spinning to embroidering to weaving and making opium grass mats.”

A corollary of the study is that women contributed economically to their families’ wellbeing much more than it is usually acknowledged—a new take on women’s historical roles, far from Confucian idealized realities championed by more traditional scholarship. But what about the poems and the erotic paintings, with the tiny feet in such prominence? “I think what these tell us,” says Brown, “is simply that men found women attractive, and those were the feet that women had!”

The demise of foot binding, too, was due to economics, even more than to social changes and progressive thinkers and missionaries struggling to modernize traditional Chinese society in the Republican era (1911-1949): “Once cloth became easily and cheaply transported, commercial handicraft stopped being viable as an alternative source of income,” says Brown. The more cotton mills opened up, the more women would need to be able to walk to the factory to earn the money that could no longer be earned by handicraft work done at home.

One of the reasons such an understanding of this custom is being unearthed only now, is simply because “archaeologists didn’t really look at this,” says Brown, even when they excavated women’s bones. And few anthropologists had thought of asking women who had experienced the practice themselves. Once an assumption is made about women, it would seem, it takes centuries before it is challenged.

Update, Feb. 26: This article was updated to add an additional detail from Brown’s research regarding the fact that women who unbound their feet would frequently marry without rebinding them.

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