Cultural practices vary from one community to another. Some cultural practices are unique in certain communities. It is important for anthropologists to understand each cultural aspect serves an important function in the society. However outdated, backward, or foolish a certain cultural practices may seem, it should be respected. Because no culture is superior to another, people should learn to appreciate other people’s culture. In this paper, I undertake to discuss foot binding as an important cultural practice in China, which to some people is bad, but the practice played an important role in China.
Foot binding involves tying the four small toes beneath foot then the bone between the ankle and foot is bent. The practice hinders normal development of foot making the foot small. Foot binding is normally done to young girls during, which their legs are tied tightly to prevent further growth. The practice traces its origin from court dancers in China during Song Dynasty’s rule. The elite and families from upper class were the first groups in China to embrace the practice. Later, foot binding became a common practice among all classes in China. However, foot binding was not practice by all societies in China. The Manchu’s and women who worked in plantations did not practice foot binding. For the Chinese foot binding is a symbol of beauty and it makes women appear more feminine. Foot binding among the Chinese society ended in the 20th century when human rights activists campaigned against it citing the negative effects it causes to girls. Foot binding causes deformities. Although the practice has been abolished in China, there are still few old women suffering because of the practice (Wang, 2000).
Procedure of foot binding
Foot binding was performed to young girls usually at the age of six or seven years. Although very painful, girls from poor families had their foot bound at an older age because they were required to provide labor in farms and households. The practice is usually to small children because their bones are brittle making it easy for bending of bones. The practice is carried out during winter because they believe that pain is reduced by numbness. A mixture of herbs and animal blood is prepared and warmed for the girls to soak their feet. The mixture makes the binding process easy because it softens legs. The feet were also messaged gently to help girls get ready for the practice. To prevent infections, nails were trimmed to prevent further growth. Bandages soaked in the mixture were used in tying the legs (Ma, 2010).
According to Ma (2010), the bandage is tightened forcing the small toes to lie under the foot. After tying, the big toe and the heel were pulled together and the foot was curved making the foot smaller. This was achieved through downward and backward pulling of bones. The metatarsals and bones were pulled together. The result of the practice was a short narrow foot. After foot binding, the foot looked like a crescent that hangs vertically on the ankle of foot instead of a normal foot with a flat base. The Chinese referred to the short, narrow, and crescent shaped foot as golden lotus. Parents who also took care of the girls and ensured that bandages remained tight mainly performed the practice. This is ironical because the practice is very painful and parents managed to make their lovely young daughters go through the practice without pity.
Care of the foot
To attain the preferred foot size and shape, the bandages were tightened from time to time. Girls were also given small tight shoes to prevent further growth of the foot. It took a period of two year for completion of foot binding after which feet became weak and functionless. Parents took the responsibility of cleaning the feet. This included manicure and daily washing of the feet. Manicure was very important to prevent nails from growing and pricking the soft foot which could cause infections to the foot. The feet were massaged frequently with warm water to reduce pain and enhance free circulation of blood. However, it is also dangerous to tighten the bandage excessively as it poisons blood through limited circulation of blood. Sometimes toes develop painful corns. In such cases, a knife should be used to cut them off. Reduced circulation of blood may cause rotting of the foot. Binding feet at a later age is more painful because the same size of shoes three to four inches is forced into the large feet (Levy, 1966).
There is a Chinese saying that every pair of shoes cost a bath of tears. This is a clear indication of girls go through much pain for their feet to get to the required shape and size. Pains decreased with time. By the end of the two years, body cells become insensitive and die causing no more pain. The practice changes body movement and walking style. Bound feet make it difficult for the girls to walk. After binding, the shape and size of the leg is determined by various factors. These include the age of the girls at the time of binding and the tightness of the bandage used in wrapping the feet. Foot binding at a tender age as well as tight binding produced small legs. Movement was determined by the feet size and shape. Small feet made it difficult for women to walk. This was a disadvantage to women who could not carryout domestic duties because of difficulties in moving. Because the practice was first embraced by the elite and high class families, it is in these families that women with the smallest feet were found. Their husbands hired servants to carry out activities on their behalf. The majority of moved from place to place with assistance of other people walking was a difficult task. However, the condition of an individual determined her ability to move. Some struggled to walk on their own while others used canes. Proponents of foot binding compared the women’s style of walking to that of a butterfly floating in water (Giskin and Walsh, 2001).
Importance of foot binding among the Chinese
Giskin and Walsh (2001) state that bound feet were a symbol of beauty among Chinese. Men were recognized, respected, and valued in the society because of marrying wives with bound feet. In order for men to be respected people in the society, they sought to marry women with bound feet. The shape and size of the feet of women determined the status of their husband in the society. Small legs were ranked highly in the society. When choosing wives, men did not only consider those with bound feet but also those with the smallest. Women were forced by culture to undergo the painful experience to get husbands. Women with bound feet had higher chances of getting married to wealthy men than those in their natural feet. Because every woman wished to get a rich husband, they accepted the practice with some girls getting their feet bound by themselves.
It was a common belief among the Chinese that small feet are erotic and attractive. They believed that men were aroused sexually by small feet. Women with bound feet were also believed to be sexually active. Men liked them because they were assured that their sexual desires would be satisfied. This is the reason women with natural feet could not get husbands easily. Men feared that they would be dissatisfied sexually if they married them. The Chinese believed that the main function of women is to satisfy their husbands’ sexual needs. Men referred to women as dependent people that required the help of men. Men were supposed to provide for the needs of women because of their inability to move. Because women were fully dependent, they were forced to obedience. This is an indication that women did not participate in decision-making in China because men dominated the society. The fact that women were treated as sex objects shows that men exploited Chinese women. Foot binding reduced the movement of women. This reduced incidences of unfaithfulness in marriage because they could not move freely. It was a custom that women were available to satisfy sexual needs at anytime. Foot binding was practiced in honor of the Ming Dynasty by Hans, which elapsed in 1644. The last Han dynasty that ended badly with the emperor committing suicide was the Ming. The Manchu’s took over from the Ming Dynasty. There is an assumption that Hans began the practice to rebel against the Manchu’s (Ma, 2010).
Greenhalgh (1977) argues that foot binding was done to maintain the status the family. For the girl’s father, he was sure of receiving valuables from whoever would marry his daughter. The society practiced arranged marriage where the father took the responsibility of getting a suitable husband for the daughter. Because it was his responsibility, he ensured that the marriage was of social and financial benefit to not only the girl but also the family at large. The girl’s value was increased by foot binding so that the family benefitted from bride price. It ensured a peaceful and happy marriage union because girls remained obedient. Social pressure pushed many people to adopt the practice. Failure to embrace the practice could lead to discrimination in the society. Although men established the practice, it gained popularity among women. In some cases, women with bound feet ridiculed their fellow unbound women. “Duck foot” was the title used to refer to women with unbound feet. People laughed, scorned, ridiculed, and mocked at them in public. Socialization between people with bound feet and those without was a problem because women with unbound feet were regarded as outcasts in the society. Many girls had their feet bound to avoid discrimination in the society.
Effects of foot binding
The practice is a taboo in my community and many others because of its associated negative effects to the victims. First, foot binding transforms the entire life of women. Unlike women with natural feet who can depend on themselves, foot binding makes women full dependant. Inability to carryout normal duties is referred to as a disability. Foot binding is a kind of personal induced disorder. The practice leaves women disabled because they can no longer walk or work by themselves. Dependency increases the chances of men oppression or violating women rights. Arranged marriages were very common the Chinese. It was the duty of the parents to choose their daughters husband. Arranged marriages are not good because the choice of the husband may not fit needs of the girl. For a marriage union to be successful, partners should interact and learn the behavior of each other during courtship. This enables them to determine if they can cope with each other. Wrong marriage partners may lead to problems in marriage and divorce. Opponents of the practice argue that choice of marriage partner should be left to the girls (Greenhalgh, 1977).
According to Gates (1989), foot binding is a dangerous practice, which denies women freedom of movement. Women are forced to spend much time in chambers. This is violation of women rights because their movement is limited within the compound. Secrecy and confidentiality is also affected because women must move with the help of other people. The practice prevents women from visiting places they could have wished to be alone. Foot binding may cause other medical problems. Development of painful corns and feet infections may result from the practice. Foot binding is a painful practice, which may cause death. Any cultural practice, which puts the life of people in danger such as female genital mutilation, same-sex marriage, and foot binding, are not suitable and they should be discarded in the community. Men took advantage of the practice to violate women rights. This is because they considered them as sexual objects to fulfill their bodily desires. Last, foot binding is against the doctrine. God created human beings on the sixth day in his own image and likeness. Foot binding is an interference of what God.
Decay of foot binding
Foot binding was first opposed in China during the Quing dynasty under the leadership of Manchu. Although he was not successful, Manchu and his family abolished the practice. However, he paved the way for the missionaries who came later. To terminate foot binding, families joined and formed Unions. The societies advocated and preached advantages of natural over bound feet. Member families did not allow girls with bound feet to be married in their families. The Government of China established laws banning foot binding although some people continued with the practice in secrecy. Even today, some women are still bound during their childhood in Taiwan and China (Gates, 1989).
Foot binding was a deeply rooted practice among the Chinese and it was passed across generations. The aim of Chinese was not to torture or expose girls to suffering but it was a source of wealthy to the family. However, movements against foot binding have led to termination of the cultural practice in China. Human rights activists argue that the practice is a kind of oppression against women. Foot binding and other cultural practices that endanger lives of women should be banned in societies.
Gates, H. (1989). The Commoditization of Chinese women. Signs, 14: 799-832.
Gikin, H. & Walsh, B. (2001). An introduction to Chinese culture through the family. California: Suny Press
Greenhalgh, S. (1977). Bound feet, Hobbed lives: Women in Old China. Frontiers, 2: 7-21.
Levy, H. (1966). Chinese footbinding: the history of a curious erotic custom. Califonia: W. Rawls
Ma, S. (2010). Footbinding: A jungian engagement with Chinese culture and psychology. New York: Taylor & Francis
Wang, P. (2000). Aching for beauty: Foot binding in China. New York: U of Minnesota Press