University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Women with Bound Feet in China

Cessation of Bound Feet during the Communist Era

This photo is of a well-dressed, young Chinese woman with bound feet. Approximately 1900. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (public domain).

Excerpts from When I was a girl in China, stories collected by Joseph Rupp

Li Xiu-ying

I started binding when I was fourteen, a typical age to begin. I had to let them out once after liberation, though. So that’s why my feet aren’t so small anymore. They used to be very tiny! You see, when the Communists came to our village in the early 1950s they told everyone to unbind their feet. Women were afraid to do it, so there was no response to the order. I was the leader of the village women’s association, and since I was the most active member and had quite tiny feet, they felt it was essential for me to set an example for the other women. The authorities came to my house and forced me to unwrap my feet. They took away all my binding cloth, too, so I couldn’t rebind them. Once it was announced to the village that I had unbound, they implemented a policy where if a woman refused to stop binding her feet the family would have to pay a large penalty in cash, livestock and goods. Most people were afraid and couldn’t afford to pay such fines, so they had no choice but to let their feet out.

This was a very embarrassing experience for me. I was very, very unhappy about having to let my feet out. I was a dancer and knew that I couldn’t walk, not to mention dance, if my feet were let out. After I removed the bindings it immediately became excruciatingly painful – it was terrible! I had such a hard time trying to walk. I had to crawl on my hands and knees, and it was impossible for me to resume my daily activities. After two years I had to begin binding again, regardless of what was happening in society. It was just too painful. The day my mother started binding my feet, she told me that it had to be done in order for me to find a husband. I knew that already because every woman I ever saw had bound feet. Before the Communists came I never even heard of a woman not having bound feet. Mother also explained to me that the smaller a girl’s feet are, the better a husband she will get. Ideally, you want the feet to be very short – at most three inches – and very narrow. My feet used to be narrow, even at the heel, but they got bigger after I let them out.

It is extremely painful to bind, and at first it makes you sick … changing the color of your skin all over your body, even on your face. You don’t feel like eating for quite some time and you are unable to walk at all – I had to wait at least a year before my toes were broken under and the arch was pushed up at least two inches. Then I could begin to walk a little without so much pain. Now, of course, I can walk a long way without any problem at all. Like when we met today – I was on my way to the park for a stroll. I didn’t work when I was young … my grandparents worked in the fields and my parents were both teachers. Being the oldest of five children, my responsibility was to take care of the house and my younger brothers and sisters. There was not much you could do to relieve the pain in the beginning except to secretly loosen the binding cloths. I would do this, but eventually the elders would find out, wrap them up again even tighter, then stitch the cloth together so I couldn’t loosen it again.

If I have a daughter with tiny feet like mine, and you have a daughter with big feet like yours, then your daughter is not as good as mine. That’s the way we used to think! One’s status in society depended upon the size of your feet. The smaller, the better. I remember when I was 16 and saw my aunt’s feet for the first time. I was completely amazed at how tiny they were! I thought they were exquisitely beautiful. She wore red binding cloth and blue shoes that were embroidered with multi-colored flowers and figures. I was so impressed that I decided to begin binding my feet even more tightly so they would become as tiny and beautiful as hers. She told me that if I succeeded in making my feet as small as hers she would let me have my choice of shoes from her collection. She had a huge cabinet full of magnificent tiny shoes, all in brilliant colors. Well, I did succeed, and she let me pick as many pairs as I wanted. I was so excited! I had just begun to perform traditional dances with the women’s association, and we were performing before the entire village, and I was ecstatic to have such exquisite shoes to perform in.

I normally wear two pairs of shoes over my bindings and a pair of stockings. Both pairs of shoes are made of fabric and are decorated with embroidery. If it is rainy or muddy I have a pair of black leather lace-ups that I slip on over the others to protect them. At night I just wear my undershoes over the bindings. They are my sleeping shoes and can be any color … I like mine to be red. By the time I got married at nineteen I had a big cabinet full of shoes, all handmade and intricately decorated. The practice of footbinding started many dynasties ago and has continued all this time until my generation. It stopped in my village around 1951 or so. We still have women in their sixties who have tiny feet. I really didn’t like having to let mine out, but now I’m glad the government has stopped this custom. It is very hard on someone to do this to their feet!”

Su Lian-qi

“I had bound feet for many years before liberation in 1949, but when the Communists came to this area they started a movement to stop footbinding. They told us it was very bad for our health and that we should let our feet out, so I did … slowly. At that time I was not yet married and had been binding since I was seven. The bones in my toes were already broken and completely folded under, so when I began to loosen the bindings my feet didn’t expand much.

I was happy when we let our feet out, although it hurt for several months and took a long time to get used to. Once it was done it was so much easier to walk and more convenient all around. As a little girl I remember my mother telling me that footbinding was a tradition and if we didn’t do it we’d be very unattractive. I didn’t ask why, and I don’t know what the purpose of it was other than to be beautiful. I guess it began a few dynasties ago … we followed it without question.

When I first started binding it was very painful … so much so that I couldn’t sleep at night. I was still able to walk, though. Many girls suffered much more than I did. When I couldn’t stand the pain any longer I would secretly loosen the bindings; when my mother found out she wouldn’t get angry or scold me. She had bound feet, too, and understood how much it hurt. She would let me keep the bindings loose for a while, but I always had to wrap them up tightly again. I would wash and rebind my feet every day – it had to be done that often because the binding cloth gets caked with blood and pus.

My feet hurt for about one year, but then they were molded into the correct shape and I could walk well. My family did weaving, so I didn’t have to go out and work in the fields. I went out and walked around whenever I wanted to – to play or go buy things in the market. Here women could always go out of the house whenever they pleased.

Before the Communists came almost every woman bound her feet, rich and poor alike. There were only a few in this village who didn’t. I think that is because they had very little or no Han blood in them – they were pure Bai minority people. But no one cared or treated them any differently because of their big feet.

footbinding by Joseph Rupp

Footbinding by Joseph Rupp