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A strange perception of beauty…

2009 March 2
by Hlin

Foot-binding is an Ancient Chinese tradition that started sometime in the 10th century Tang Dynasty and wasn’t abolished until a full millennium later, in 1949.  Traditionally, having very small feet was considered a symbol of class and beauty for women, so it was a social necessity for young girls of all different classes to go through this process.  Many poems have been written lauding the beauty of such “lotus feet”, the most famous of which comparing the precarious, unbalanced walk of a woman with bound feet to an exotic dance.  The was called the “lotus gait”.

I’ve done some research on what exactly this practice entails, and the information that I’ve found was eye-opening… to say the least.  At the age of six or seven, when the bones of the girls foot have fully developed, the girl’s family – if it was rich enough – would hire a professional foot-binder, who would break the arch of each foot and fold it in half at an angle, length-wise.  The big toe would be kept intact, while all the little toes would be broken and folded toward the sole.  A stiff bandage would then be wrapped as tightly as possible around the entire foot to permanently alter its shape.  In the process, this creates a deep slit where the sole of the foot used to be that men found exceptionally desirable.  So, essentially the women had to literally walk on their toes.  If you find this hard to imagine, I have found a picture (and sensitive stomachs REALLY need not look):

The was also a scale of gauging the beauty of a woman’s feet: if they were 12 centimeters long, it was said that she had “iron lily feet”.  This, believe it or not, was actually bad.  It was 8 centimeters long for “silver lily feet”, and 6 centimeters long for the coveted “gold lily feet”.  Needless to say, the real “beauties” of China after the Tang Dynasty could barely walk.

If you think about it, this is an example of the engendering of technology at an extreme.  If we look more deeply at this twisted sense of beauty, we can see some very interesting social connotations.  In the Tang Dynasty, foot-binding was a fashion trend started by the elite classes.  As a man, what it meant to have wives that could barely walk and were utterly dependent on him was this: he was rich and powerful enough to keep them care of completely by his own means, and was probably wealthy enough to keep servants.  For him, this extreme dependency was an affirmation of his power and masculinity, and his admiration of “lotus feet” could be seen as stemming from a desire to monopolize power in his household.  And for his wives, being confined to the house meant that they didn’t have nearly the amount of access to politics or technological resources as he did… therefore making political participation and technological advancements nearly exclusively masculine.

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