It is said that the practice of foot binding originated among court dancers in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). The earliest relevant written records date to the 13th century and refer to the fame of the dancing girls with tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes at the court of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975) in southern-central China. Over the centuries foot binding was practiced by many elite families and later became widespread among all social levels. Many women with bound feet were able to walk unaided and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitation than women whose feet were not bound.
It is estimated that by the early 19th century up to 40% , and possibly higher, of Chinese women had their feet bound. Among the elite women this would have been nearly 100%. Most of these women were Han, but other groups such as the Dungan and Hui peoples and some Cantonese practices this ‘art’ as well. Some families practiced variations of foot binding, such as loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot.
In contrast, since 1644 when the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power in China, Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet. Instead they invented their own form of shoe with a platform or central pedestal that meant they walked in a similar, swaying manner. These shoes were called “flower bowl” or sometimes ‘boat’ and ‘moon’ shoes.
The widespread acceptance and popularity of foot binding is reflected in the presence, during the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, of troops of dancers with bound feet, as well as circus performers who stood on moving horses. The diaspora of Chinese families throughout the world in the 19th century, also meant that women with bound feet could be found in Europe, Asia, notably Hong Kong and Indonesia, as well as America.
During the late 19th century Chinese, Western and Muslim reformers challenged foot binding, but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out. This was due to concepts of ‘modernization’ (Westernization), changes in social conditions, as well as various active anti-foot binding campaigns. Some groups, for example, argued that foot binding weakened China as it disabled and enfeebled women, who in turn might bear weak sons. Others attack it as causing women suffering, but the latter seem to have been in the minority.
The Empress Dowager Cixi, a Manchu, issued an edict forbidding foot binding, but it was never seriously enforced. 1912 saw the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the introduction of the Nationalist government of the Republic of China. They officially banned foot binding, but with little vigour or success. It was not until the Communists came into power in 1949 that the practice was forbidden and remains officially banned in China to the present day.