For centuries the definition of beauty in women has been defined by different cultural norms. Wearing neck rings to elongate the neck, stretching earlobes, inserting plates into lips, piercing and tattoos are just some of the ways that women have altered their bodies to become what is culturally defined as beautiful.
In tenth century China, the practice of binding female feet was considered the height of beauty and lasted until the mid-twentieth century.
There are many stories as to how the practice started. One tells of an empress with a club foot, who insisted all women in court bind their feet so that hers became a model of beauty. Another is about an emperor wanting a concubine to bind her feet to resemble a crescent moon, thus enabling her to dance on a decorated golden lotus he had made. She was so graceful that upper class women imitated her, making the practice popular throughout China. A third is that the sheath shape of the bound foot resembled a lotus bud. The term “golden lotus” came to be given to bound feet. The swaying gait caused by the tiny steps taken by women with bound feet was considered erotic and labelled the “lotus gait”.
The binding was carried out on girls between the ages of four to seven, usually in winter as no anaesthetic was used and the foot would be numbed by the cold. First the foot was soaked in a mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften it. The foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch would be broken to accommodate the toes. The toenails would be cut back and the toes broken and forced under the foot before being tightly bound with a bandage soaked in the same animal blood and herbs. Over the course of the next three years or so, the foot would regularly be unbound, cleaned, beaten to soften it, the toenails recut and the bones often rebroken and rebound tighter each time to achieve the smaller size.
The perfect foot size or golden lotus was 10 cm, a silver lotus was 13 cm and an iron lotus was 16 cm. The smaller the foot, the more desirable and eligible for marriage a woman became.
To accommodate the feet, many types of “lotus shoes” were made. A woman would have a selection of shoes for different occasions. She might have a pair for daytime, for her wedding, higher ones for bad weather and even funeral shoes.
There are five pairs in the Museum collection, each highly decorated with exquisite embroidery in silk and metal threads. One pair has attached wooden heels. Separate heels were sold which could be attached to shoes when the wearer wanted to walk in wet or muddy streets. A larger pair resembling normal shoes is known as a Manchu “flower bowl”, made to accommodate a larger unbound foot. These shoes were like ordinary slippers and would be attached to a high sole, which made their wearers walk like women with bound feet. Traditionally, Manchu women did not have their feet bound.
In the nineteenth century an anti-foot binding society initiated campaigns against the practice of foot binding, fines being imposed upon those who continued it. While in some very remote areas the practice continued until the 1950s, by this time foot binding had virtually disappeared. Today only a few elderly women with bound feet survive.
Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.