Chinese foot-binding is perceived today as unusual, gruesome, an antiquated fetish, an erotic tradition.
For decades in China, young girls’ bones were broken and their feet tightly bound in a painful process that would eventually make them appear more desirable to men, according to historians. Their deformed feet, known as lotus feet, were tucked into embroidered shoes and viewed as delicate and dainty. It was a way to show off their social status. It was, at the time, chic.
One study, however, suggests that there was another reason girls were subjected to the practice ― and it wasn’t all about beauty or sex.
Research published in the book Bound Feet, Young Hands suggests that some women’s feet had been bound at a very young age so they could be trained to sit still for hours and help create textiles and clothing for the family.
“What’s groundbreaking about our work is that [foot-binding was] not confined to the elite,” Laurel Bossen, the book’s co-author, told HuffPost. The study, Bossen added, dispels the view that the goal was only to try to please men.
To uncover this little-known history of foot-binding, Bossen and the book’s co-author, researcher Hill Gates, interviewed over 1,800 elderly women in remote villages across China and found that foot-binding was widespread among peasant populations, shattering the belief that foot-binding was a status symbol of the elite.
All the women surveyed were born when foot-binding was still an accepted tradition. It’s unclear when the practice began exactly, but Bossen believes foot-binding in China goes back as far as 1,000 years.
“As the last generation of these foot-bound women disappears, we fortunately managed to interview many of them,” Bossen told HuffPost. “There is no other body of data based on interviews with foot-bound women that is as comprehensive as this. It was really a last chance to do it.”
The type of foot-binding practiced in rural communities was a form of discipline, the book argues. Mothers bound young girls’ feet so they would stay still and work with their hands, creating yarn and spinning thread, among other things, which families could use or sell.
“Women who bound their daughters’ feet had their own interests in controlling the labor of young girls and young women,” she said. “We reject the view that women were exempted from work, treasuring their precious bound feet and not economically important. They developed hand skills and worked with their hands throughout their lives.”
These new findings, Bossen believes, prove that women in rural areas who had bound feet didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
“Chinese women were contributing more to society than they received credit for,” she said of the rural women with bound feet. “They were making very important contributions in the form of textiles [that have] been undervalued and mostly just forgotten.”
And while this new research suggests that this painful practice wasn’t solely for men’s desire, it doesn’t make the practice any less oppressive.
Bossen explained, “It robbed young girls and then women throughout their lives of their ability to do other things, to move around and play, to have more choices. Of course it’s oppressive.”
The practice of foot-binding began to be banned in the early 20th century, though some women, like those interviewed by Bossen, kept their feet bound their entire lives. Bossen believes the stories of the women she interviewed might have gotten lost in history as their generation passed away.
Still, Bossen and Gates’ book doesn’t deny that “lotus feet” were created to make a woman appear more desirable. Accounts written by feet-bound women in 19th century China, published by the University of Virginia, show that women often believed the tighter the foot-binding, the better the husband they’d attract.
The research does, however, show that these women were more than just sexualized objects. They worked hard to contribute to their families and to the larger society.
“We often underestimate how important handwork was in China’s pre-industrial economy,” she told HuffPost. “The intense pressure on women to work with their hands, to spin, weave, sew, and stitch cloth, bedding and textile products for their families and for sale has gone unrecognized.”
Their research, Bossen added, aims to look at the whole woman and not just her bound feet.
“Somehow, people have been so fascinated by the feet that they ignored the rest of the woman and what she did,” she said.
“It’s very rare to find people who notice the role of handwork in the lives of foot-bound women or who ask these elderly women what work they did when they were young girls.”