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The Straight Dope

I've always been intrigued by the ancient custom in China of binding women's feet. I've never seen an actual picture of what they end up looking like but have heard them referred to as "lotus blossoms." Do they end up looking like a claw or just little tiny feet? Was this an attempt to further control women so they wouldn't get away?

-- Jean, via AOL

On the scale of sick things that have been done to women in the name of social custom -- well, I guess clitoridectomy has to be at the top of the list. But foot binding is surely number two. (Those wasp-waisted Victorian corsets that distorted the rib cage are a good candidate for number three.) It was perpetuated by one of the world's great civilizations for a thousand years, during which time hundreds of millions of women were crippled for life, in most cases by their own mothers. The tiny feet that resulted were to Western eyes not beautiful but grotesque.

Since time immemorial small feet have been prized in China and, for that matter, in many cultures. (One recalls Cinderella's tiny glass slipper.) Actual binding of the feet, however, probably did not begin until around the Tenth Century. Initially it was practiced by dancers at the imperial palace, who are thought to have performed on a rug or stage of some kind having a lotus design, hence the term "golden lotuses" for bound feet. From there it spread to the women of the imperial court, then to the upper classes, and finally to Chinese society as a whole. Because the dancers could still dance, binding presumably wasn't taken to extremes at first. But over time tinier and tinier feet became prized. Ultimately the ideal foot was one not exceeding three inches in length.

Foot binding was a cruel, painful process that began when a girl was around five years old. A bandage two inches wide and ten feet long was wrapped around the foot in a figure-eight pattern so that the arch was compressed and the four smaller toes were bent under. The foot was then jammed into a shoe several sizes too small. Over a two-year period, tighter and tighter bandages and smaller shoes were used until the desired result was achieved. The bones broke, pus-filled sores developed, the flesh putrefied, and occasionally a toe dropped off. A few girls got gangrene, and some died. The final product was a sort of clubfoot, less foot than hoof.

Why? Part of it was the subjugation of women. A woman with bound feet could not walk unaided and spent most of her life in her quarters where her faithfulness could be assured. What's weirder is that Chinese men found these deformed and often foul-smelling feet erotic. Bound feet were said to keep the woman's lower body tense during walking (what little she could manage), enlarging her buttocks and tightening her vagina, thereby increasing the male's sexual pleasure. Seeing the unbound foot of one's lady drove men nuts. The tiny foot was a focus of foreplay and was featured in pornography. One of the bigger kicks was drinking wine from cups placed in tiny shoes. You're thinking: these guys were crazy. I suppose Chinese foot fetishism wasn't in principle any stranger than Western males' obsession with the female breast. But come on, a Wonderbra doesn't leave you lame.

Foot-binding survived sporadic reform efforts and lasted well into the 20th Century. Though outlawed in 1911 around the time China became a republic, it wasn't stamped out in some parts of the country until the '30s. The "natural foot" campaign succeeded in part because of the improving status of women in Chinese society, but a big factor was the recognition among educated Chinese that the West considered the practice barbaric. Anti-foot-binding campaigns could be quite cruel in their own right, with tiny-footed women forced to abandon their bindings, which often proved scarcely less painful than binding in the first place. But the aim was achieved; foot-binding is unknown in China today. It now survives only in the West, in the form of spike heels.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at [email protected]; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.