Chinese Lotus Shoes

A pair of lotus shoes from Malaysia (late 20th century). A pair of lotus shoes from Malaysia (late 20th century). TRC 2013.0054a-b
Published in Chinese lotus shoes

10. The end of foot binding

From the latter half of the 19th century onwards there were more and more movements to ban foot binding. Chinese groups included the Natural Feet Society and the Anti-Foot Binding Society. At first they had little effect, but gradually pressure came from more directions. At the same time various Christian missionary groups, for example, started to actively work against foot binding. One of the most well-known was the Heavenly Foot Society established by the Rev. John MacGowan in the southern port of Amony. Yet, and ironically, a number of Christian institutes practiced foot binding (albeit with reluctance), notably in orphanages. The practice was carried out in order to ensure that girls would attract husbands. Some mosques in international cities such as Singapore also protested against foot binding on the grounds that it went against Koranic texts that forbid the mutilation of the human body.

By the end of the 19th century more and more groups, of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, were active in fighting against foot binding, but this led to various unexpected consequences. In particular, many bound women were abandoned by their husbands who wished to be perceived as modern. Some men, especially young students, for example, would only marry women with a modern education and natural (tianzu) feet. Women with bound feet started to feel ashamed of their appearance and at times were publicly ridiculed. In a relatively short time foot binding had gone from a deeply established and time honoured tradition to one against which public hostility was increasing.

At the same time more and more bound women started to unbind or ‘let out’ (fangzu) their feet. In some cases this process was as painful as the original binding process. Few fangzu women ever walked in a ’normal’ manner again. As the 20th century progressed more and more women had natural feet (tianzu). When the Communist government came to power in 1949 they were vehemently anti-foot binding regarding it as being archaic and preventing women from taking a more active role in the economic life of the country. The government had inspectors who went around the country recording who was bound and who was being unbound, and to prevent any further binding.

One of the Liu Yi ladies, with bound feet, late 20th century. Photograph: The Irish Sun.One of the Liu Yi ladies, with bound feet, late 20th century. Photograph: The Irish Sun.The ladies of Liu Yi

In the southern Chinese province of Yunnan lies the village of Liu Yi. In the 1980s it was discovered that there were five to six hundred women with bound feet, most of whom were between 70 and 90 in age. They soon became a tourist attraction with people coming from around the world to see them. What these women proved is that having bound feet did not automatically mean that you were constantly in pain and unable to walk, dance or work. Some of their most well-known achievements included their active dance troupe and to beat an unbound team at croquet! But their presence also means that only when they have all died will the tradition of foot binding and all its consequence have truly ceased.