The girls who went through the excruciating process of footbinding were usually between the ages of five and seven. Though the process could be started as early as two years old, and attempted in girls as old as twelve or thirteen, the ideal age was six. At this point, the foot is comprised mainly of pre-bone cartilage. The cartilage is predominantly water, and could be easily moulded.
The day of binding was a social event for female friends of the girl and her mother. Before the binding, the mother of the girl would make a pair of shoes one and a half to two and a half inches long. These were constructed of the best fabric the family could afford, and were usually red, the colour for good luck.
The ritual was usually begun in the autumn so the cold of winter would numb the feet through the first painful months. The most usual time was the 24th day of the eighth lunar month, which was the birthday of the obscure goddess Little-footed Miss. Another popular day was the 19th day of the second month, the birthday of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
The night before the binding, the mother would take the tiny shoes to the altar of the chosen goddess and would burn incense at the altar. An offering of fruits and special dumplings would be left for the goddess. The mother would pray that the binding would produce tiny feet for her daughter. Some of the special red bean dumplings would be fed to the daughter, as this was thought to help the foot achieve a softness and size similar to the dumplings themselves.
A special woman who was known to be skilled at the job performed the binding. An elder woman or friend known to have experience and good technique was often used in smaller villages.
First, the girl’s feet would be placed in hot water to soften the skin. In some provinces, and animals stomach could be cut open and the girl’s feet placed inside. The feet would be kept inside the carcass for two hours, and bound without washing. The soaking, whether in water or blood was followed by a thorough drying, and then all the dead flesh was scrubbed off of the feet. The toenails were clipped as short as possible, to prevent the curled under toes from cutting into the foot and leading to infection. Alum was sprinkled between the toes to stop perspiration.
The bandages were of white or dark blue cotton and were two inches wide and ten feet long. They were soaked in hot water so as they dried they would shrink, binding the feet even more tightly. The binder would press the four small toes toward the sole of the foot. The bandage was placed against the instep and wrapped over these toes, holding them against the sole. The big toe was left exposed, but bent slightly upward towards the front of the leg. The bandage was wound around the toe, then the instep, up around the ankle, and back down to the instep of the foot. This figure eight process continued to bring the heel towards the front of the foot. In this process, the bones of the arch of the foot were broken. The footbinder would then sew the bandages together at various points to keep them from unravelling and to keep the little girl from loosening them. In some instances, in order to make the foot even smaller, broken glass was put inside the bindings to cut the skin and help it to rot away.
The small pair of shoes that the mother had made were then placed on the little girls feet, and she was forced to walk around. These first steps were taken in excruciating pain.
The feet were bathed and rebound frequently, ideally every one or two days, but at least once a week. As the feet were bound more and more tightly, progressively smaller shoes were placed onto the feet. It took about two years to complete the entire process.