I recently finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. I was so pulled in and moved by this book. It's the story of a friendship between two Chinese women in the mid-19th century. Though it's a fiction story, many of the details of their way of life and traditions are based in fact. I think this tale was so stirring for me, in part, because in a small way it is reflective of my own personal experiences with a friendship, and the things that can bind as well as divide us.
I was also particularly struck by the tradition of footbinding. Lisa See presents a compelling portrayal of both the physical and emotional effects as well as the actual process of forcing the feet to take on such an unnatural form.
I love to do extra research on things that I am reading about so I researched this and found that footbinding began during the rule of Li Yu at around 970 A.D. A woman performed a dance for him with her feet wrapped much like a ballerina would today. He was impressed with her and thought her dance was quite beautiful so many other dancers began to do the same. Gradually the practice was adopted by the upper class then eventually spread to the middle and lower classes.
As the characters express in See's novel, with unbound feet it was impossible for a woman to expect to marry. Women with unbound feet would only be servant women, working in the fields, or would be concubines. It's hard not to also consider how this practice could and did, in effect, control women. Not only because of the above-mentioned factors (in addition to other factors as well) but also because having bound feet prevented women from physically moving around in a normal way. The main character in the novel, Snow Flower, tells of her last days of playing outside as a child of 5 or 6 years because after the binding process began she was no longer permitted to play outside or to run around. Instead she was confined to an upstairs room of their home and had to limit the amount of time that she spent walking around each day.
The perfectly bound foot would be no more than about 3 inches long, as you can see from this picture where a typical sized shoe is placed next to, I believe, a cigarette package.
This picture is hard to look at but shows what the end result would typically look like.
For more information about the book you can go to www.lisasee.com which is where these photos were taken from as well. For more information about footbinding and it's history, see www.josephrupp.com.