Living with bound feet

A poignant interview with some of China’s last surviving victims of this practice, the termination of which is perhaps the one good thing for which Mao will be remembered.

AT ages 84 and 83, Wang Zaiban and Wu Xiuzhen are old women, and their feet are historical artifacts. They are among the dwindling number of women in China from the era when bound feet were considered a prerequisite for landing a husband.

No available man, custom held, could resist the picture of vulnerability presented by a young girl tottering atop tiny, pointed feet. But Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Wu have tottered past vulnerability. They have outlived their husbands and also outlived civil war, mass starvation and the disastrous ideological experiments by Mao that almost killed China itself.

…Mrs. Wang said she was married at 15. Asked about her feet, she laughed, slipped off a blue, canvas slipper and flapped the top half of her stunted foot back and forth like a swinging door. ‘My feet were wrapped when I was 5 years old,’ she said. ‘No one wanted you unless you bound your feet. That is what my mother told me.’

‘A woman with very small feet was considered a very desirable wife,’ Mrs. Wang added.

They are just feet to her now.

It also offers a bitter-sweet (but mostly bitter) view of the women’s lives in their farm village, always on the periphery of the great economic boom – a boom that they never even knew had taken place, and that still affects them only minimally. So interesting to read their reflections on the Cultural Revolution, and on the ways life has changed since then. The one uplifting aspect of the story is the women themselves – they still have their sense of humor and don’t seem angry or bitter or regretful. Their story is a sad one, but the way they handled the cards they were dealt is ultimately inspiring.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

Mao had little to do with it. The practice was outlawed in 1911 and a there was a successful (and fanatical) anti-footbinding movement that continued into the 1920s: it took a while to change cultural perceptions.

December 3, 2006 @ 2:33 pm | Comment


That’s exactly what Richard said and here I quote again: “A poignant interview with some of China’s last surviving victims of this practice, the termination of which is perhaps the one good thing for which Mao will be remembered.”

December 3, 2006 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

Hate to admit this, but most all of this is feminist revisionary propaganda designed to slander men and generate sympathy for women…

Truth is, footbinding was actually a voluntary act of vanity – that started out from Chinese courtesans imitating foreign Western “ballet” dancers with pointe foot bindings back in the Tang Dynasty.

“Tang court women followed Persian and Turkish fashions, wearing dresses with tight-fitting bodices, pleated skirts, and hats with enormous veils. And it was apparently imitation of foreign toe-dancing groups that originally led upper-class Chinese women to bind their feet. At first it was just palace dancers who bound their feet slightly, like ballet dancers, to stand on their toes.” – When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes

December 5, 2006 @ 4:03 am | Comment

I don’t know enough about foot-binding in China to have a valid say, maybe Sheila is right about some part of it. I’ve personally of the believe that all the objectivism of women, eating disorders, over-emphasis on looks in western society is, in general, caused by women, not men.

I hardly think foot-binding was voluntary in China, since it was usually done to girls in childhood.

December 5, 2006 @ 11:41 am | Comment

I’ve read first-hand descriptions of the misery caused by bound feet. Maybe it was “volunary” just like female genital mutilation is “voluntary” in part of Africa. It’s voluntary under severe cultural stress – you agree to it. But that in no way justifies it.

December 5, 2006 @ 11:45 am | Comment

“most all of this is feminist revisionary propaganda designed to slander men and generate sympathy for women”

Ah, on this forum I’m well known to be a merciless critic of fashionable and hypocritical forms of “feminism”. But I have zero probably with generating sympathy for small girls who involuntarily have their feet smashed.

By the way, the link “Sheila Donaldson” links to under her red-lettered name is not her own blog, but a link to a wikipedia article.

December 5, 2006 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

typo error above, I meant to write “zero problem”

December 5, 2006 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

@Fat Cat: I think what boo meant is that the termination of foot binding finsihed in 1920 and Mao did not take over China until 1949. Therefore it has nothing to do with Mao.
So it is not quite correct for Richard to say that its termination is perhaps the one good thing for which Mao will be remembered

December 6, 2006 @ 11:42 am | Comment

If you want to get legal about it, my statement stands 100 percent, even if it’s not true that Mao was the one who ended footbinding. What is true is that he will be remembered for it. Maybe like Reagan will be remembered for ending the Cold War – not quite true (that he ended it), yet toally true (in that he is and will be remembered for it). Anyway, thanks to boo for the correction, but I would still say it’s fair to claim that under Mao the practice came to an end – even if it was outlawed previously – and he will be remembered for it.

December 6, 2006 @ 11:49 am | Comment

If you want, the long awaited “last word” on the subject was published last year by Dorothy Ko, one of the foremost experts on women in late imperial China. It’s _Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding_.

Well worth the read.

December 9, 2006 @ 10:42 am | Comment

Very interesting! Here’s the Amazon link. It’s a difficult issue – cultural traditions that women willingly participate in, like female circumcision. They want to do it, the reasons for the tradition are complex and misunderstood, so how to deal with? Does the fact that they want it done make it any less bad? Tough questions. (And while Ko won’t say whether it is good or bad, I have no choice, brainwashed westerner that I am, other than to see the binding of women’s feet, turning them in effect into cripples who must undergo a lot of pain, is bad, whatever the tradition and history behind it.)

December 9, 2006 @ 12:33 pm | Comment

Though I had an interesting experience once while teaching about footbinding. A young woman from Southern California went on a three-minute rant about how somebody would do this to themselves in the name of beauty and fashion. Of course, I didn’t hear most of it as I was too busy staring at the multiple piercings in and around the woman’s nose, mouth, and eyebrow.

I understand that piercings are non-crippling (generally) compared with the body misformation that occurs in footbinding. However, the irony of the situation appeared to have been completely lost on my student.

December 10, 2006 @ 2:54 am | Comment

This kind of Orientalist crap is stupid. It’s like the Brits protesting the custom of Sati as a pretext for their prolonged colonial rule in India.

Yeah right, “Western” women lead much better lives back then. Hahahahahaha…

P.S. Also, have y’all noticed how it’s mostly “Western” men who fume over this sh-t? Why that is so is not so beyond me. It is a variation of the Asian fetish. Oh those poor lil’ Asian dolls mistreated by “their” men. They soooo need “our” help and maybe some lovin’ as well. Loving my arse. Yeah right, that Bankok-ian prostitute you slept with really love’ya “long time.” Very funny.

December 10, 2006 @ 7:13 am | Comment

Though it should be noted that it was mainly women missionaries who started the “Anti-footbinding societies” of the 19th century.

December 10, 2006 @ 10:06 am | Comment

Oh dear, I’ll literary throw up if I hear another word about Orientalism from James again.

December 10, 2006 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

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