The History of Foot Binding in China

Hi, my name is Marcy Engleman and I’m the
Museum Educator for the Mütter Museum. Today, I am here to talk to you about a specific
form of body modification known as foot binding. [Music] This practice took place in China
from around the 10th century during the Song Dynasty and it continued for over 1000 years
until it was made illegal in 1912. Young girls would have their feet bound to make them smaller
in order to portray a sense of beauty and membership to a higher class of people. It
originally began with a dancer that used to perform for the emperor and she had bound
her feet in the shape a half-moon to perform a specific dance on a giant lotus flower.
The emperor found this woman so beautiful that the other women in China wanted their
daughters to be beautiful like her and, in turn, bound their feet. The practice started
on young ladies who were between the ages of 5 and 7 years old. Their parents or grandparents
would soak their feet in an herbal mixture to prepare them. When the young girls were
ready, they would take their feet, then they would take the four small toes, leaving the
big toes alone, and wrap them under the foot, wrapping it with a bandage. Then they would
take the whole of the foot and fold it into an arch, and wrap that with a bandage. It
was extremely painful and the young girl would have a very difficult time walking on her
feet. But after a few years, the foot would become numb. Every few days, every week, the
foot would be unwrapped, washed, and wrapped again even tighter, and the hope is that with
the magic of time and pressure, the foot would become as close to 3 inches as possible. What
I have with me is a model of the actual bound foot that we have in the Mütter Museum, and
you can see how small it is that it fits right in the palm of my hand. I also have a pair
of very ornately-sewn shoes that were made for adult women to wear. Okay, here’s another
pair right here. Again, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. The practice was outlawed
in 1912, but it did continue in some of the rural areas as late as the 1940s. There are
a few elderly women left in China who have their feet bound, but shortly it will truly
become a thing of the past. You can come to the Mütter Museum and see the actual bound
foot on display in the Grimm’s Anatomy Exhibit.

50 thoughts on “The History of Foot Binding in China

  1. 3" ?!? Wow. I knew it made them smaller, but dang! May as well just amputate the foot and walk on ankle stumps…

  2. I'm surprised you did not clearly address how crippling this truly was, how women were left unable to walk let alone run, in short, you glossed the horror and misogyny, the physical control this barbaric practice exercised over women.

  3. Iโ€™ve always wondered two things.

    Why after marriage, when the men saw the foot without coverings they didnโ€™t go eww, thatโ€™s gross, letโ€™s outlaw that thing.

    Even back then there would occasionally be men who adored their wives/daughters, you would think their would have been at least some that would be like…not my daughter.

    Canโ€™t believe 1,000 years of women lived that way. So crazy.

  4. It hurts my heart to think of children being put through this, and for the women those children became, all for absolutely no good reason.

  5. I've been watching these videos for a little over a month now and I managed to convince my husband to go to Philly from Toronto to see this museum. We literally went this past weekend for our anniversary. It's an amazing museum! If you ever want to see specimens such as the foot in this video and have the time to go, I highly recommend that you visit the museum. It's incredibly informative, educational and just down-right interesting to see the collection!!

  6. and today in the west we have our young girls starving themselves to chase a stick figure beauty standard. not enough nutrients during puberty results in a permanently small body and a lifetime of disordered eating.

  7. We think our society is so advanced today, yet we cut off the healthy genitals and breasts of young girls and boys, healthy men and women, and ruin their long term health with artificial steroids. Don't get too righteous, ya'll. I am sure they had their rationalizations, too.

  8. The ideal was to be able to put the whole foot in the guys mouth, yeah, that was the thing. Besides the status symbol of a wife who had to be carried around on a litter because she couldn't walk. Read Pearl Buck's The Good Earth for a readily available English version of the practice.

  9. I wondered why this went on so long but when I thought about it we are still doing the same today. We torture our bodies trying to achieve an ideal shape. We spend hours in gyms, millions on special diets that wreck our health put layers of makeup on our skin that have questionable ingredients, cover our hair in toxic chemicals, and resort to plastic surgery when all else fails.

    I can cite my own case in point. I have breast implants that I recently discovered that might be making me ill with M.S. When I broached the subject of having them removed with my spouse he quit literally, "pitched a fit" and told me that I would be "ugly" and "undesirable".

    We think we have come so far in the world, and to quote the younger generation we believe ourselves "woke" but in reality, we are still the same.

  10. I wonder what they would think of something like braces (dental) that is common in North America

  11. It had been my dream to see the Mutter for years! In 2010 i was able to, unfortunately many displays were in transition. I hope to go again someday.. I could spend days reading every exhibit!โค๐Ÿ˜ƒ

  12. Oh it gets worse too! Some cultures bind the head leading some people's skulls to look like Xenomorphs. I'm not kidding.

    Enjoy. /s

  13. some day. "these are sacs of salt water that women used to have implanted under their pectoral muscles …"

  14. That's crazy! Wow! The things people have done in the name of beauty! Look at European woman and corsets! Yikes!

  15. Would they have left a pair of actual, natural Cinderella feet alone? Was it the size only or the shape too? "Yup, these ones are already perfect. No need to do anything else."

  16. You forgot to tell the part where the bones were bent to fracture and bent some more until obliques formed. The last elder woman with the bound feet died more than a decade ago.

  17. Even to this day a few small african tribes still practice inserting wooden disks into thier lips to make a hole in the lip ever bigger, to attract a husband,. No matter how bizarre we think this is, they call it beauty..

  18. You may want to point out that this was mainly practiced by Han Chinese and that there are many other ethnic groups in China that did not engage in this practice. The Manchu women and the Hakka are a couple of groups that did not bind their women's feet.

  19. Three inches huh? So the Chinese guys wanted their women's feet to be the same length as their di..did they even think about the health issues this would cause for the women!! Cruel!

  20. Shame on you spreading false narratives and minimizing the systematic, mandatory crippling of chinese women and turning the horror of their lives into a circus side show.

  21. ๐Ÿ˜ท๐Ÿ˜ท๐Ÿ˜ท I'm sorry, but that's classic Chinese ๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ patriarchal barbarism for ya. ๐Ÿ’€๐Ÿ’€๐Ÿ’€

  22. OK I'm going to say it because it needs to be said what a stupid thing to do to people it serves no practical purpose and only causes suffering and impractical deformities

  23. Educator? I think not. Cosmopolitan and hustler magazine are not historical publications. Foot binding isnt like breast implants or collagen injections or any other voluntary pornoprocedure. It wasnt a "beauty practice" just because some disgusting man with a shriveled, rancid peeniss liked using them as ceckstoys. Foot binding was a sadistic >man<date imposed on female toddlers to prepare them for domestic/sexual imprisonment and slavery.

  24. The binding actually broke the toes. Hence why it was so painful. Only a small portion of women in China are still alive and are still emotionally scarred for being beaten if they refused to do this by their parents. One lady said that she was envious of today's women who are free to run and play. Unlike her day when she was in so much pain she could barely stand. The way this lady describes it, it doesn't sound as traumatic and painful to those who endured this beautification process.

  25. this makes me think how rich the families must have been – how could they afford that members of their family barely could walk and work?

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