Critical Essays The Chinese Custom of Foot Binding


The Chinese custom of binding a young girl's feet plays an important role in The Good Earth. When Wang Lung first sees O-lan, he immediately notes that her feet are not bound; later, he has O-lan bind his daughter's feet. He becomes disgusted with O-lan's feet and is attracted to Lotus partly because of her bound feet. The practice of foot-binding symbolized many things to the Chinese man. To Wang Lung, it symbolizes, among other things, the aristocratic society from which he was excluded.

In a society so old, so large, and so diverse as that of China, it is impossible to accurately trace the origin of such a custom. There are many stories concerning the origin of this custom, and perhaps part of each story has some element of truth. Most authorities claim that the practice started during the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). One of the earliest stories asserts that bound feet originally came from the practice of wearing bow-shoes, which were small shoes with upturned toes and were worn by royal dancers in the royal court. A poet-king (Li Yu) thought fancifully that the dancers would dance more gracefully if their feet were bound in cloth. Consequently, he made his favorite dancer dance with her feet bound in cloth, which was then decorated with pearls and precious stones so as to resemble lotus flowers. The poet-king then wrote verses about the beauty of the dancer's feet, calling them "little golden lotus flowers" or, sometimes, "little golden lilies." Thus because of the beautiful verses written by the king, binding of the feet became a popular and fashionable thing throughout the kingdom. "Lotus" was often another name for bound feet and, thus, Wang Lung's concubine is appropriately named "Lotus."

Another story concerns another king in the T'ang dynasty. This king's concubine decided to have her feet bound in order to make herself more desirable in the king's eyes. The king was so pleased with her attempts to please him and with the beauty of her small feet that the other ladies of the court soon followed the concubine's example in order to please the king.

A third story involves an empress (Tak-ki) during the Shang dynasty. She had club feet and was very ashamed of them and was also jealous of the other women in the court. Consequently, she forced all other women to bind their feet so that they too would become deformed.

A final story deals with political power. An emperor had trouble keeping his wife out of political matters. To keep her from interfering in matters of state, he had her feet and the feet of her followers bound so that she was forced to remain in her quarters. This final story conforms with the Chinese male's suppression of his woman. Because the woman could walk only a very short distance, she was confined primarily to her household. It would therefore be a disgrace for a woman to show her face beyond the doors of her home. Of course, with her feet bound, the woman was quite content to remain at home because, in addition to the pain of walking on them, she could not balance herself for a long period of time; consequently, she had no desire to do anything that would take an extra amount of energy.

All of the above stories have one thing in common — each deals with royalty. Thus it is safe to assume that the practice actually did start with someone of royal blood. The practice can then be related to royalty, sophistication, and social prestige. To do what the king did would elevate the average Chinese man's estimate of himself.

The binding of feet, if done properly, was started when the girl was five or six years old. The feet were bound by yards of cloth that would not stretch. To start the process, the foot was extended at the ankle, and the fleshy part of the heel was pushed down and forward under the foot. The foot was then carefully wound up with the material. The tight binding primarily cut the circulation, and this retarded the growth of the foot. It is easy to see that the toes would become bent under the pressure and would not spread out to their normal width. The binding would force the foot to become narrow and tapering. After a while, the toes would stay curled under, even when the bandages were removed for cleaning and changing.

Women's feet would then have unnaturally prominent in-steps as a result of this process. If done properly, the heel would become elongated and grow down to the ground level — that is, it would be on the same level as the bent-under large toe. Essentially, then, the woman walked on her toes and heels, the whole foot being about four or five inches in length. The entire process could take several years before all growth was arrested.

The shoe to fit this foot was somewhat smaller than the foot — about three or four inches in length. Part of the heel stuck out of the shoe and it was tied to the outside by a piece of cloth. The woman would wear thin cloth around the foot inside the shoe. On the outside, thicker cloth was wound around the ankle. The girls not only made their shoes themselves, but they also embroidered them with various designs. The design of the shoes was considered part of the accomplishment of a young woman.

The difficulty of the above legends concerning the origin of the custom is that if the feet were not bound while the child was young, it was almost impossible to do so after she had reached maturity. After twelve years of age, the foot would be about as big as it would ever get. When feet were bound at an older age, the only thing that usually happened was that the toes curled under. The heel would never grow down to toe level, and a wooden block had to be placed under the heel for support.

As with Wang Lung's daughter, who wept from the pain of her bindings when her mother tightened the bandages too tightly, it is easy to see that the entire process was a very painful one. Often the skin and flesh broke and cracked if too much pressure was applied or if the feet of an older girl were bound. If sores appeared, they were difficult to heal. The bandages had to remain on if the process was to work because of the necessity of constant pressure. Many times infection and gangrene set in and many times the girl would die from the procedure. Thus, we have the old Chinese saying: "For every pair of small feet, there is a jar full of tears."

One would think that such an unnatural and painful process would be quickly abolished, but, instead, it became a part of Chinese culture. Books were written on properly formed feet, and men praised the ones that were properly formed. Poets traveled to different areas of China to compare feet, and emperors went to the southern provinces for sexual indulgences since women in the South were famous for their small feet. Women continued the practice until well into the twentieth century, for, next to a good face, a woman was immeasurably proud of her small feet. Even though the bound feet were unmercifully painful, yet if she had a well-shaped pair, it was her pride for life.

As noted above, besides being a mark of gentility and indulgence, bound feet were thought to be seductive. Men thought that if a girl bound her feet, her waist became more slender, and her breasts and hips bigger and more shapely. In his book My Country and My People, Lin Yutang writes that "small feet influenced the whole carriage and walking gait of the woman, throwing the hips backward, and effecting an extremely gingerly gait, the body 'shimmying' all over. Looking at a woman with bound feet walking was like looking at a rope-dancer, tantalizing to the highest degree." The bound feet, then, were some of the highest sophistications of the Chinese sensual imagination.

In Wang Lung's case, it was a mere indulgence to have a woman with bound feet. She was almost useless; she could not work in the fields or carry heavy loads, as O-lan did. She was kept as a "toy" to show other men that the master of the house could feed a mouth that did not work for its pay. The possession of Lotus by Wang Lung causes the villagers to respect him more. It shows that he is rich enough to afford his pleasures; he does not worry where his next meal is coming from.

Thus as Wang Lung becomes wealthier, foot-binding takes on more significance to him. Even though he noted on their first meeting that O-lan had big feet, yet during the years of work, this fact did not bother him. When he has more money and leisure, however, he looks at O-lan, and "she was altogether hideous, but the most hideous of all were her big feet in their loose cotton cloth shoes." Now that he has money, Wang Lung begins to realize that something is lacking in his life. It is then that he discovers the concubine Lotus, and his attraction for her is based, in part, on her small feet.

When Wang Lung moves Lotus into his house and builds her own separate court, she never goes out. One reason for this is simply that she cannot walk very far on her bound feet. She is kept like a toy or a pet, one who is expected to serve no other function than being a sex object.

Wang Lung's change in attitude is also shown in his view of his daughter. He makes O-lan bind the girl's feet so that they can enable her to find a good husband. Thus even Wang Lung, basically a mere farmer, represents the Chinese's long tradition of considering small feet to be associated with elegance and royalty.