Foot binding was practiced in China for more than 1,000 years -- far longer than can be attributed to a mere cultural or fashion fad. Why did such an extreme type of body modification become such an ingrained part of the culture for so long? Read the show notes here.
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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Welcome to stuff you missed in history class from how support slacken
hello and welcome to talk ass, unholy for tracing evils, and today we are going to talk about one of those cultural practices that often give put squarely in the bar Barrett pocket when people outside the country
about it right at that time, but while it does involves
pretty you know, make your spine Crawley manipulation of the body thereof,
layers to it than that and heads up fashion people. This will also cover some fashion elements, but we're gonna talk about the history of foot binding. We ve got a few request for it and it thus there's something. I've just been fascinated with for a long time,
largely coming at it from the the clothing angle. Here I think when we in Europe and our previous podcast pops up,
we talked about it a little bit an episode. We talked about shoes year and I will talk about one of the books that I talk about and that episode that was written by another name, Dorothy CO, who reference a couple times during this time, cast
it is estimated that during the height of foot, bindings popularity more than two
billion girls had their feet altered in this way, although I will say this looking at multiple different sources, as often happens, I feel like I'm always kind of saying this qualifiers. You will see vastly different numbers, someone list, one billion tremulous three billion, but I found several that was two billion, and it's the mean, so I breezes
were set up an regardless be with a b billion. We built legs. Many many many and part of the room
that this practice went on for more than ten centuries. I mean it was more than a thousand years of China's cultural history
is a very long time. I don't need to tell anyone
far more than you can really just write off as a cultural or fashion fad, I mean this is an ingrained part of culture
So we're gonna examined today what it is about. Finding that made it such an important cornerstone of chinese womanhood for so very long and kind of how the different facets of its place in the culture
The exact origin point of finding we don't really now, as with many things
it may have begun in the late Tang Dynasty, between six eighteen and nineteen o six. Some scholars point instead to a period that's actually referred to as the five dynasties and ten states period, and this was a period of time. Women
go upheaval was so constant that leadership in China, with changing so rapidly that they, it doesn't always get
given individual dynasty names. It gets loved under this bigger one and that
tween the tongue dynasty and the song dynasty there.
several different origin stories, that kind of float around in one the favourite concubine of an emperor bound her foot into the shape of a half so that she can dance on a gilded Lotus stage and this
urgent story. Sort of characterizes the binding that their concubine did as similar to using point shoes and valet was a temporary alteration of a dancers foot and because this dance,
Concubine in this story was the emperor's favour it. She said a trend with her tiny load, his feet that she created for this dance and lady.
The court wished to emulate her style and that started the practice another.
version of the story, features another concubine who had naturally tiny delicate feet and was Org
to bind them so that they wouldn't grow
similar to the damn thing tail. This practice was then Emily
by other court. Ladies
there's another origin theory that suggests that there was an empress
in an earlier period that had a club, foot and Ladys of the court
combining their feet to resemble her. Although some fort versions of the story portray the m.
As demanding that other women be bound so that they would all can have similar foot shape at this point.
Your story really predates the tongue dynasty timeline by more than a
thousand years in some tailings son has its place between seventeen hundred and ten twenty seven BC.
and this one is not really substantiated terribly well, so it's usually disregarded by scholars and they tend to favour more of the tongue dynasty or m five dynasties intensely.
Error as being when this happened, regardless of exactly how the practice began. We do
that, during the song dynasty from nine sixty two twelve ninety seven foot binding,
became more and more popular and became a lot more common throughout the upper classes
then during the coming period, which began around thirteen, sixty eight foot, binding, really spread
and popularity to the working classes and even at her rural villages and because of its status symbolism
even been theorize that women who wish to marry up adopted this practice and that that's how it even
saturated chinese society. At almost every level. There are also scholars who argue that marrying into a higher social class wasn't really the motivation for adopting that binding and more rural areas, but that was
Instead, a means to keep girls at home working in domestic duties you they could not run off to a better life, particularly when they were young in their feet, were still kind of being formed an altered in this way, so they would have to stay home and work on textiles and do things around the house, but the surviving
you need to grow steadily and popularity and by the middle of the seventeenth century, pretty much any girl who
is to marry, underwent this body modification and I remained, the state of affairs- were right up until the twentieth century. So now
Slightly more squeamish, she's subjects of house at binding was actually performed. It is described as having been performed really with great,
here and only women were present during what was likely a very tortuous affair. So, first, the girl sweet would be very carefully washed.
Nails clips and alum and other astringent would be applied to the feet. Then the outer
four toes were folded under the third, which required breaking them and
the feet were then bound up with long cloth wraps to bring the tears very close to the heel and a very extreme arch, and the goal was to form this coveted golden Lotus shape. Yet some versions descriptions that I've read of how this is performed suggested the feet. The toes work,
oaken twofold them under. Although some describe it that way, others say that the the toasters broke by virtue of them being
did under them, then wrapped so tightly they sort of broke throughout the process. Neither sounds very enjoyable and when people talk about bound feet, the perception,
then becomes. I think that the entire foot was made to be tiny, but that's not
it's more a matter of kind of folding the foot in such a way that the space it occupies is different than if it were allowed to grow. Naturally, so a Lotus slipper, which is what the shoes for bound feeder called, would cover the tone
which had formed canvas point at this point and then the heel, but a significant portion of the actual mass of the foot was actually a boy
of the shoe, so you can imagine it sort of being folded down as well as
Normally the process of creating this golden Lotus Fit would start when a girl was really very young and her feet
still malleable. So the bones had not completely solidified yet so
but binding, would usually start between the ages of four and six.
And while they were certainly outliers bureau, these numbers children young
four were not believed to be able to handle the pain of binding their feet and
after the age of six, the bones were a lot more difficult to alter here there
He's girls being altered as early as two and three
girls later on, as it was sort of spreading into more rural areas when they were really beyond the age where it was most ideal. But the two to six or eight are the forty six ranges. What you'll normally see and this process of actually getting the foot bound into the the desired shape would actually take too
for years, because these are children and their growing. So the bones would have to be re broken periodically as the foot grew. So, as a child grew, they would, you know, continued a rap, the toes under more and more and more as they got longer, and then they would keep binding them and they would we break on each binding now fell
and, of course, when a foot is being broken and tied into these positions and and very rarely uncovered, there are going
other issues aside from all the breakage in the reforming of the way, the foot looks
sores and even gangrene were among the potential risks and bound feet, particularly as this became a lot more widespread and commonplace boundary,
described pretty often and smelling quite unpleasant, because unwrapping and washing them was a very time consuming affair. An imminent
under these fairly obvious negative physical effects for binding,
long term. Repercussions on women's health has also been studied in kind of the more modern era enlightening
seven. A University of California Study published its findings
for examining a group of women in Beijing, and so at this point for binding had, was
really happening regularly, but there were so women in the population who had had their feet down when they were young, and so these researchers found that when they compared all of these women
the women with bound feet had about five percent lower bone density than their peers without bound feet, and since wait bearing exercises one of the things that helps maintain bone density. It makes sense that women with reduced mobility would experience both moss and a faster rate than people who had not had this done an interesting thing that I don't think
I certainly had not thought about it until I was doing research on this now and even knowing the importance of wavering exercise in bone health like that is something that never occurred to me
further year and they do describe some here. I feel that we should know
that women with boundary could walk
although they were not likely to walk terribly long distances right, it wasn't like they were confined to a chair, which I think sometimes people conjure in their heads that this is crippling to appoint their mobility is completely eradicated that that's not accurate. They kind of learn to live with this in mind,
on it, and there are some right up of it. That suggested
Women that had feet bound, didn't, have actually developing very strong leg and hip and buttock muscles kind of his compensation for their the state of their feet. But even so, the moss over time is something that you can't really avoid with. Even if you have great masculinity right, this episode of stuff, you miss in history,
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Sakharov, dot com, slash history, as with any trend that starts in the upper classmen becomes widespread there
certain amount of status that was associated with foot binding,
so not only would abound foot, be really delicate and tiny, which were characteristics that were often described as beautiful when mentioned in relation to set binding. It would also
the owner of the foot, really unable to do heavy manual labour, a woman with bound feet with
elevated beyond work. Basically, a man who could
a wife who was unable
help with manual labor would also gained status.
while the roots of the practice of systematic crippling are, in fact in the aristocracy and knee initially at their inception, were to convey.
The wealth and standing of the person whose feet were bound
The song dynasty, the overall status of women, really shifted into a lower
You than I have been
and women at this point really lost some of their power, both in their marriage and in society, and they were no longer is educated as women had been during previous areas, and in this context,
put binding became less about status
fashion in it sort of took on a more sinister connotation. So at this point, a woman with bound feet,
physically weakened and subjugated to the role of a trophy wife. While a man who was married to a woman with bound feed still game the same status from it be able to say yes, my wife is unable to do work. I've. I can keep a wife, that's just pretty sure,
really contributing to the day to day, or is the woman in that case, her life had shifted completely, but the men and the pictures look at this
benefit at the same time as the binding became hugely popular throughout all the social strata. The only women who wouldn't have their feet mound were the ones who were extremely poor or them
he worked on fishing boats and cities were women. You just really simply could not
or the life of reduced mobility that came with having to be found and
on another sort of level of its outside of first, this sort of fashion and empowerment, and then the subjugation of women bound feed also have this element of being considered
the extremely erotic and beautiful, and they were really even fetish eyes by some books.
Written about maximizing sexual pleasure by stroking bound feats, although this sort of odd flip is that
women's bound feet were virtually never seen naked by a man. Not even her husband would normally ever see her feet. It was customary this for a woman with bounty to sleep not only in bindings, but also in special bed, shoes, sort of sleeping slippers that covered her Lotus feet. So we don't want
avoid the fact that the binding had had an innately disfiguring nature, but at the same time it was also an incredibly complex social practice. It's hard to comprehend,
perhaps how a mother would have her daughters seat bound like why a mother would put her daughter through this practice, but
really important. To also consider that what that once put binding was a really common practice. Leave
Child sweet unbound would basically condemn her to a life
the new marriage prospects and societal scorn and its importance to also discuss the fact that this practice was all
ingrained in women's culture in ways that
not be immediately apparent for finding was passed from mother to daughter as an important right of passage, and this really created a unique bonds.
groups of women as adult women shared their knowledge on enduring the pain and discomfort of them
each with younger girls and they
in many ways is described as them teaching the next generation how to survive in a world where men had the power, so is kind of like they're, a mentor ship very unique, certainly not the standard meant or ship. You would normally think of
there. I think it. This has parallels with female circumcision also called for,
genital mutilation way, but it
the very mother daughter practice with mothers passing
information onto their daughters about how their life,
are gonna be after this practice is performed on their body. Yeah like I'd,
struggled to wrap my head around. All of that, as somebody who, like I'd, have new first hand, expiring.
With either of these cultures are practices. It's hard.
As you said, without foreseen experience to imagine, just surviving, lad and then
idea of getting through it. Then going and I'm going to do that to one of the people I love most there, a sort of becomes
but an impossible situation for women in the culture to have to choose between a daughter, he's gonna be outcast forever, and a daughter he's going to have this this painful and debilitating and disfiguring
procedure performed on them, but they also you know, culturally, it had been sort of
green, so much that that was an achievement of beauty that I think that kind of mitigated to some degree. Some of the thinking of this is horrible, like I think they in many cases are party, was no choice considered. It was just this is what you do right to be pretty. Ah, it's it's mentally its struggle.
Think for, like you, said, for people to have no first hand. Experience of that yeah like I'd. I cannot honestly say what I would do as a mother. If that were the choice given to me bout yeah, I mean, but to get to the pretty things
but to downplay the important now discussion, but women also
really bonded over the stitching of these Lotus shoes, and this is a task which would often be performed in group. Settings like women would come together to so Lotus shoes, and these
I need which are now very highly prized by collectors would often carry mess,
Isn't symbolism in their decoration shoes for bride?
would have been omitted
Laden, symbolism in the form of embroidery or painted imagery. They would even
sometimes erotic imagery in the souls that was intended for the bride share with the groom, and
use that were meant for data day. Wardrobes would feature symbols and designs. They express the where's
now already they would sometimes carry greetings from female relatives. They would also sometimes have astrological, meaning they were these little tiny works of art that had so much intent behind their every design that that also was kind of part of the the bonding among women was creating these
beautiful at all accessories ray what an while foot binding, had transition from being a source of status for women to a source of subjugation for women. There,
the Lotus slipper remained really the world of women, and
very serious form of expression.
right until the end of her life. A woman's load issues were really imbued with both meaning and fashion, a woman's final pair of shoes,
whose her funeral repair, which she would normally make herself. They were also sometimes called her longevity shoes,
traditionally blue, and these would be fairly plain when compared to other Louis shoes,
but on a soul, a Lotus blossom and other small symbols. Sometimes a good crane would come
the embroidered phrase every step, a Lotus all the way to Heaven- and these are the shoes
that they were wearing. You know in their repose of death and it sort of a beautiful idea that they would be simple and beautiful, and just carrying this message that they were going to the afterlife in the sort of beautiful delicate way. Ah- and I can only imagine what it's like to make your own pair of shoes- that you're going to air after you have died
reminds me of craftsmen making their own casket yeah Dorothy CO, who Ali mentioned earlier, has written to you
books about foot binding in its cultural roots, and she said Anne Elliot Times, interview quote it is
two Amandas lies the practice and I am happy to see go, but it is a pity that there is no comparable, but obviously less painful practice to take its place and bond generations before we get to how for binding stopped being a standard part of
chinese girls life. Do you wanna pause for a moment for a word from our sponsor? Let's do hate this episode of stuff. You must in history class, is brought to you by earnest. If you have student loans,
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Dot com, slash bona clean and without will get back to the matter at hand for fighting. Obviously, this is not a practice that still going on
So the end of foot binding was actually catalyze in part by christian missionaries who travelled to China in the nineteenth century and at this point for binding, was more
popular than ever and foreign visitors, seeing it for the first time were immediately outspoken against it. And yes, this does indeed
a whole other debate over the conceit of imports.
your own cultural norms on another culture versus the idea,
proceeding on behalf of children who, you think, are being systematically abused in this modification process, but that is a whole other discussion that could go on for
yeah, I like a twelve partner if it were where dwelt or one- and I remember, having a whole
whole long series of
friends and a class that I took in college, about that exact question of life
well when you are a culture when your part
culture, that is, that is becoming introduced to another culture and that other culture does something that your culture fines to be barbaric and offensive like. Where is the line you and I we never got to you?
kind of satisfying resolution in that discussion, because there isn't one again that whole big mouth
discussion. So, in addition to the work of the missionaries, there are also many chinese intellectuals. You went abroad to study and return to their homeland afterward with a new perspective on the practice, and they join the chorus of cries for abandoning this tradition.
Eventually, public opinion shifted against foot binding enough
the ban that took place in nineteen twelve to take effect
and it's one of those things where it's not like the whole country suddenly went. Oh yeah. We should be doing this. I mean this was something that was hard fought on both sides. It was not cut and dried.
and while the embracing of this different fashion meant that little girls were no longer being forced to hobble on broken feet. It really us
creatives, this sort of
ass generation of women in China who had grown up with modified feed and now
we're finding themselves spurn to some degree is relics of an age that was more and more associated with this embarrassment over this practice,
In an interview with NPR author Young Young said
These women were shunned by two errors. When they were young foot, binding was already forbidden, so they bound their feet and secret. When the car
honest air came production methods changed, they had to do farming work and again they were shunned yeah. These
no never meant to do you real heavy labour, as you said before, and suddenly they hand to you, there is no choice right, so they had to keep up with people that had not had this modification under their feet
Now imagine how difficult that had to have been, and they were also shunned as being unfashionable, and while that sounds like an almost flip thing to even mention it was actually a very serious and problematic issue
women were sometimes abandoned by their husbands. Husbands, as a consequence of being suddenly thrust into this position.
The word. They were considered irretrievably unattractive. Additionally, some women with bound feet were actually attacked in the store
and their bindings were cut and it exposed their feet in the assault and since, as we know,
and earlier women women,
normally never showed them to any one. So this was an incredibly cruel and humiliating thing to do this,
the ban. There were villages that still practised for binding into the nineteen fifty's
in rural areas, where, if it binding state in favour a long time after the ban was instituted, parents would hide their daughters, tiny feet and big shoes to try to fool government inspectors. Yeah. There are lots of first hand accounts that you'll read where people talk about. You know getting these big shoes and having to stuff them with cotton. In turn,
angle there foot in so that it would stay in the shoe and just so, they could kind of maintaining this thing that they still further.
Was really a part of their culture. They didn't want to let go of,
but eventually for binding was about
and even in these hold out areas as with any huge cultural shift. As I said earlier, it's not, it could happen all at once and it sort of slowly petered out over time. In these last
villages that hung onto it, so they could kind
but we well intended, but ultimately misguided efforts to force women who had bound feet to unbind them.
This was met with a whole lot of resistance from the women themselves, because giving up binding as an adult. In addition to all the cultural implications we ve just been talking about, often resulted
excruciating pain each other
one story, that's told, I think it comes up and when the Dorothy Coasts books, where she talks about a woman going up to a man, I think she's, like a knot of, do that's been baked and she says if you can return as to its original shape
stop finding my feet right, you can't do it well and once once a person's feet like their foot, bones have broken
be healed repeatedly like that. No going back would now like even seems like even with extensive corrective surgeries, would probably just be a life of a different pain than the pain that was already there. Yeah yeah,
in her book. Cinderellas sisters, Dorothy CO, describes this period after four
mining as a really emotionally confused time for a lot of China as the country
in addition out of this cultural norms that had been ingrained for many many centuries. So even I think there may be a couple of survivors still without feats. Many of them died in the early two, thousands that had been sort of the ones on record, but even so it's like when you hear interviews with them. There is this this conflict even now,
you know in the recent years prior to any of them, passing away where, on the one hand, these they sort of still seem to think it's pretty, but they also recognize that it's not really something that is sustainable in the modern world ran like they kind of recognise their own sort of awkward position, which is heartbreaking in many ways. Near by,
already said. I can't even imagine- but I can't even imagine like I can't even imagine, living in a world where the relationships between genders are so heavily influenced by this practice,
eventually band yeah. I like that
I mean really through a lot of establish cultural, nor
out the window. And thirdly, where do we go from here like? How does this change everything? And you know there was a time when, when China
shifting a lot anyway, culturally, oh yeah. So this was one part of a much bigger picture of constant change, but gets a fascinating little part of the culture that
say little, but it was really huge because it was really day to day life here affecting every aspect. Basically, I was trying to think of lake, something like two modern Americans. That would be comparable, but it's it's difficult to think of anything now. Fortunately, no thing that we have been doing for,
thousand years, that no one else was doing yet. The United States, as a nation hasn't even existed on years. I mean that obviously there were many people with many cultures here.
before which brings up this whole thing. Is you ve been talking about a win win
Culture begins to enforce it,
norms upon another. What happens? You're food for thought for sure, and with that I will turn us towards us
let's do that so that this sum ale, that we got in response to our worries, diplomacy, episodes and it is from our listener- I'm gonna assume he goes by Dundee and not Dennis, although if he, which ever he can give me,
YO and tell me I'm wrong, and MRS Berger Ali and Tracy Nieces, I was
I'm editing a little because as the longest email, so my apologies to Dundee for taking out any of his words
a long email, but it's so full of interesting and get information. He says I was happy unpleasantly surprised that this part of our history, referring to more eastern policy, made it
to your show, but also because I am a little bit obsessed by duplicity being in the same town and all he has a statue. His birth houses,
the whole sharing really I've always found. The podcast
forgiven. Interesting- and I was intrigued to hear this story from an unbiased, indifferent perspective- you see not only as stupid,
in the great darkness, still polarizing, almost fifty five years after his death, but it solely to current political tensions and sentiment. I will do my best
my personal opinions out of the sea, but for full disclosure. I work for the federal government surmounting night. You later
if ever got an email from a mountain. Before, though we have, I apologise that I did not acknowledge it
I want to elaborate on my holly, I believe, did not get any response when asking English Canadians for info about do policy. That was me
in Canada. There is a wide cultural schism between French and English, but also Quebec and the rest
we learn little about other provinces, past the confederation in eighteen, sixty seven, the opposite is true for the rest of cannon.
Where they learn just about nothing about us at all, and this leads to an almost unfeelable cultural gap between the two founding people and ultimately makes us both slate.
ignorant of the other and therefore not surprised at all that the angle phones would know nothing of duplicity. Ironically, duplicity is,
We credited for seeding this gap in the first place. This fascinating debate them doing it had a little bit, as is its full of information and turn his high points,
there's interesting to beat. You did not mention that I think is worth mentioning. The duplicity bridge collapsed in nineteen fifty and was rebuilt. We mention the absurd, still
stands today only a few metres north of where the collapse happened. You can actually still see the old
are sticking out of the water. It was left pretty much unchanged until last year,
when it went on when it underwent renovations to modernize the lighting and enlarge it a bit. I believe the most interesting thing
the well documented speech at the original bridges. Inauguration. Duplicity said this bridge
he'll be a solid and long lasting as the union nationals government, which was ominous of the latter's devise. Of course, he talks about the dew pc kind of devious voting things
and one of the good things he actually did is still here today, the flag prior to nineteen. Forty eight nineteen fifty in its present form
get back. Had a union jack type provincial ensign, as many provinces still have today, with Ontario, for instance, but in his pushed
french Canadians their own identity and for other political,
since I am sure, duplicity had the new flag pushed through the assembly.
And it became the ominous flirt only day or the White Saint George Cross on a blue background with? Thirdly, in all four corners, this is me
departure from the unified federalism that existed prior to his reign. Interestingly, there
actually a roman catholic flag going to show his closeness to the church. Equally interest,
One of the early drafts of the flag was a single read me belief, which of course became the canadian flag in nineteen. Sixty, I think, don't quote me. I did not look up to see. That was eighty two to the eight, my apologies
any, does talk a little bit more about other things in some of the other things that he was associated with an accused of. But I really like that this paragraph forty andor. He says
Come I've always come to the conclusion that duplicity was as close as Canada ever came to a dictatorship innocent.
That given some more time, I am convinced it would have turned into a personality cult even with the orphans.
and though we were treading dangerously close to a totalitarian regime so cool. I love having all this insight from someone who is from Quebec and can give us that respect because, as I said, all the Canadians I know are not from Quebec there. Ah, I think I have a couple relatives there that are so distant. I could not
of them, so it's very cool. We also, I should point out- did get some letters from people in other parts of Canada. That said, no no, we did learn a little bit about do placeth in class, not as in depth, certainly as someone who goes up and came back, but that divide is very fascinating to me.
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