The Chinese custom of breaking and binding a little girl’s feet began over one thousand years ago. Since that time, millions of Chinese women from all classes have experienced the excruciating pain involved in achieving the extraordinarily tiny lotus foot. Foot binding began in the royal palaces in the mid-10th century. There are several stories surrounding how this strange custom began. Myths surrounding the gods and goddesses of China include a story about a fox who, in an attempt to disguise himself as an empress, concealed his feet by binding them. Another story suggests that the last empress of the Shang dynasty had a club foot and persuaded her husband to make the compression of the feet obligatory for young girls. The generally accepted theory, however, credits Prince Li Yu, who ruled one of ten kingdoms in southern China. It is said that he had a favourite woman in his concubine, who was a suburb dancer. “Precious Thing” toe danced inside a six-foot high platform shaped like a lotus flower made of gold. This dance seems to be an early variation of ballet, though rather than squeezing the feet into toe shoes, Chinese women resorted to permanent disfigurement in order to execute the choreography. When the women of the concubine started to bind their feet to copy Precious Thing, it is likely that the bindings were very loose in comparison to what they would become.
The custom of foot binding was at first a sign of wealth, as the woman with a properly bound foot could do very little. This remained a custom of the royalty, nobility and very rich until the beginning of the 17th century. By the end of the 1600’s, millions of women from all classes were binding their feet in order to imitate the upper classes. Though the custom was outlawed in 1911, footbinding was not completely abandoned until the Communists, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949.