Chinese Lotus Shoes

Bridal lotus shoe, early twentieth century. Bridal lotus shoe, early twentieth century. TRC 2013.0060
Published in Chinese lotus shoes

1. Introduction

Chan zu (lit. “bound feet”) is the practice of binding young girls’ feet very tightly in order to prevent further growth and normal development. The tradition prevailed in China for about 1,000 years until the last reported case of binding in the mid-20th century. At first these tiny and re-modelled feet were merely fashionable for the elite, then they became socially acceptable. The next stage was when the concept of “lotus feet” (lian zu) became a custom and gained wider acceptance and eventually became an essential element in women’s life.

But there was never one type of lotus foot or shoe, instead there were many forms in which local and regional fashions and developments played an important role, namely in the size, shape and final appearance of the feet and their coverings. It was always the aim to create the appearance of a tiny foot. Only the shaped tip of the foot was placed in the shoe, the heel was normally supported by bandages and sometimes with strips of bamboo. The heel was hidden from public view by a series of wrappings, leggings and trousers.

Boy with his elder sister who has bound feet (late 19th century; courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07450).Boy with his elder sister who has bound feet (late 19th century; courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07450).Lotus feet were also a means of gender differentiation: boys did not have their feet bound, while girls did and in later life this had an effect on the different roles of men and women. Both men and women considered lotus feet aesthetically beautiful, with their own innate daintiness and symbolism. Such tiny feet also meant that a girl or woman would walk with a swaying movement called the lotus gait, which was regarded as sexually enticing to men. This gait was regarded as important for finding a suitable husband and by doing so increasing the position of the girl and her family. It also meant that, in many cases, it was difficult for a woman to walk, thus making her literally dependent upon her husband, family and servants.

An early tinted photograph of a Chinese Han lady and her servant; both women have bound feet (c. 1870; courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-14684).An early tinted photograph of a Chinese Han lady and her servant; both women have bound feet (c. 1870; courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-14684).

Throughout the centuries a marriageable girl was frequently chosen for the size of her feet and the quality of her needlework, especially for her footwear. A pair of shoes she had made and embroidered were sent to the home of a prospective husband to be judged by his family. Very small and elaborately decorated shoes were regarded as a sign of self-discipline, patience, fortitude and forbearance with extreme situations, as well as evidence of artistic creativity and household skills.

Many women, and their families, took great pride in their tiny feet, which were said to take the shape of a lotus bud with a wide and rounded base (the heel) going into a pointed tip (the toes). Hence their names of lily feet or lotus feet. The ideal foot length was about 7 cm, which was called the golden lily or the golden lotus. Between 7 and 9 cm was known as the “silver lotus.”

In some areas a woman’s unbound feet were called iron lotus, a term that was regarded as being insulting. Yet badly bound or shaped feet were seen by some as far worse than ‘long’ or unbound feet. Mis-formed bound feet were called names such as half-squeezed foot, half-blocked foot and little crooked bone

The pride and social necessity of ‘perfect’ lotus feet is reflected in the beautifully embroidered silk shoes and wrappings girls and women wore to cover and emphasise their feet.

Browse through the exhibition: 2. A brief history of foot binding »