At a bus stop, a man eyed me from head to toe – literally. As he stared at my toes, I thought, What is he doing? Since then, I’ve noticed others gazing at my feet. In turn, I’ve taken to looking at Chinese women’s feet. To date, I haven’t seen any feet that seem as long as my size 8 1/2 – 9 (about size 40) foot. And I’ve certainly not seen any toes like mine — if they exist, they are hidden inside closed toe shoes. Historically, the length and shape of women’s feet have been extremely important to the Chinese. In fact, for almost a thousand years, foot binding was common. Here are two theories as to its origin: one says that in the 10th century a woman called Precious Thing danced on her silk wrapped toes inside a six-foot high lotus flower made of gold and decorated with jewels, pearls and silk tassels. When the prince admired her feet, jealous women tried to make their feet like hers. Another story is that an empress with a clubfoot told the emperor that if only other women had feet like her, she’d be happy. Hence, the emperor declared that all women must bind their feet. The process of binding one’s feet took about two years. After soaking a young girl’s feet, all toes except the big one were bent down towards the sole of the foot. The toes eventually broke. Also the back of the foot was pushed up (as though one were wearing very high heels) so high that the arch was broken. The feet were then wrapped. Each time the bandages were changed, the bending was increased. These “Lotus Feet” – ideally less than four inches long – became sexually attractive and made a woman more eligible for a prestigious marriage. A female’s gait became one of petite steps with a swaying walk caused from walking mostly on her heels. Women, who had difficulty walking, were more dependent on their husbands and couldn’t leave the home easily. Hence, a husband felt ownership over his “chaste and demure” wife which contributed to the sexual appeal. Into the 1800s nearly all Chinese women wanted bound feet. If they couldn’t afford it, they were laughed at and ridiculed for having big feet “like a man’s”. Yet, Christian missionaries, educated Chinese, social Darwinists and feminists began to appeal for an end to the practice. They said that it promoted the inequality of the sexes; that it was an ancient practice in a progressively more sophisticated country; and that it perpetuated physical weakness and suffering. Edicts began to ban foot binding in the early 1900s.
When the Communists took power in 1949, they strictly prohibited the practice, and the ban remains in effect today. As I glance at others’ feet, and they in turn look at mine, I think our ten toed flat feet are truly Happy Feet. We’ve come a long way — or have we?