Like opium dens, sedan chairs and bat-winged junks, women with bound feet were once stereotypical to China.
Deliberately crippled to conform to male ideals of beauty, these strange, pathetic creatures - to Western eyes - embodied the mysterious ways of the East.
Early travel accounts describe the “alluring” manner in which Chinese women with bound feet walked, as they gently swayed and tottered, usually with an amah on each arm for support. Physiological reasons for this “attractive” faltering gait were never seriously questioned by casual observers.
Carefully sanitised by euphemistic nonsense, foot binding was considered a quaint cultural taste that no outsider could ever fathom. In reality, the underlying appeal was explicitly sexual.
Crippled feet required one to walk in a certain mincing manner to avoid toppling over; as a result, it was believed, the inner thigh and pelvic muscles became unusually tight. Thus, more lurid thought processes went, the smaller the bound feet, the stronger the vaginal muscles would be during lovemaking.
Adult human feet reduced to 10cm-long stumps – the fabled “golden lily feet” – were the most prized.
Ultimately, it was all about male sexual satisfaction.
Foot binding also demonstrated male economic power. At a time when most Chinese people existed only a few rice bowls away from starvation, being able to keep economically unproductive women whose only practical functions – due to crippled feet – were decorative, sexual and reproductive, was a powerful status marker.
Possession of a houseful of bound-feet women told the world, “See how wealthy I am! I can easily afford to feed all these useless mouths!”
Chinese women – as ever – colluded in this patriarchal oppression, often for the most well-intended reasons. Aspirational mothers of pretty girls from poor families bound their daughters' feet in the hope of attracting a wealthy match, who could extract their offspring from the desperate poverty that had blighted their own horizons.
In order to keep the deformed bones together, previously bound feet had to be tightly bandaged in a particular manner before the decorative shoes were worn, in much the same way that a boxer’s knuckles are bound with cloth tapes before donning leather gloves. A complicated, time-consuming process, the bandages usually stayed on for days (or even weeks) at a time.
When they were eventually undone, the nasty state of the bandages, and the grossly deformed, suppurating feet they covered, can only be imagined – especially in hot weather.
The Chinese expression “long and stinking, like granny’s foot-binding cloths …” revoltingly sums it up; the saying is still used to describe overly lengthy, deeply unpleasant personal stories recounted in far too much detail.
Strident opposition on the part of 19th-century Christian missionaries gradually effected social change and the practice was eventually outlawed.
Nevertheless, decades elapsed between official abolition and the actual end of foot binding. It happened well into the 1930s and elderly women with bound feet can still be found, especially in China’s rural areas.
One friend, now in his 40s, vividly remembers the childhood horror of seeing his great-grandmother’s tightly bound feet: their ruined circulation brought on a massive headache – and violent outburst – every afternoon, until her death at nearly 100 years old.