The process of foot binding started at between the ages of 5 and 8, when the arch of the foot was still soft and not fully developed. The entire process took from 2 to 5 years and caused extreme pain. It was generally an elder female member of the girl's family, her future mother-in-law or a professional foot binder who carried out the initial breaking and ongoing binding of the feet. This was considered preferable to having the mother do it, as she might be too sympathetic to her daughter's pain and less willing to keep the bindings tight. (Left) X-ray image of a normal foot, (right): X-ray image of a bound foot.
Each foot would first be soaked in a warm mixture, which was to intended to soften the feet. The toenails were cut back as far as possible (or even removed) to prevent in-growth and any subsequent infections. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes bent or broke. The large toe was left unturned in order to help with balance. The toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly bent upwards.
The long, cotton bandages (3m long and 5cm wide) were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and round the heel. At the same time the toes were pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath.
The girl's bent feet required a great deal of care and attention and they would be unbound regularly. In some wealthier families the process of unbinding and re-binding with fresh bandages were carried out every day, while poorer families may do it twice or three times a week. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injuries and the nails trimmed. The feet were also massaged to soften them and to make the joints and bones more flexible. The feet were then soaked to cause any dead flesh to fall off. Then the girl's toes were folded back under and the feet were rebound. The bindings were pulled ever tighter each time this occurred.
Loose and symbolic binding
Loose binding is where a narrow, bow-shaped foot is required rather than the arched foot described above. This form of binding was associated with women in more remote regions where the weather and working conditions did not suit the tighter form of binding. It consisted of wrapping the toes under the sole, but with not enough pressure to break the bones. The aim was to create a narrow foot that gave the appearance of a bound foot.
Symbolic binding took place in some areas, so a woman may walk around unbound while working, but when approaching a town or for a festival she would bind her feet in the manner of traditional binding. Another form for girls was to have their feet slightly bound just before they got married and then the binding was undone after the wedding.