It is easy for us to assume in this modern age that men must be the source of the pain endured by the young girls who had their feet bound. There are, however, many reasons for the custom that must be examined to discover how such a horrid custom could remain for a millennium.
Because women with tiny bound feet could not possibly be made to do hard work in the fields, it became a sign of wealth and status for the wives of wealthy men to follow the practice. Gradually the royal craze became an accepted custom. It was taken up by lesser nobility and on down the social ladder to merchant classes and farmers, each hoping to reach a higher social standing. By the beginning of the next century, the practise was so common that a woman without tiny feet would be deemed unmarriageable, possibly the worst thing that could happen to a Chinese woman of the past. In the 19th century, Western missionaries who ran orphanages in China had to permit the girls’ feet to be bound, or the girls in their care would never have found husbands.
The woman has played a subservient role in Asian countries for centuries, and to some extent, it continues today. It was believed that a women who was kept physically restricted by the binding of the feet would be less likely to gain mental independence. The belief that anyone who could afford a helpless wife must be successful, regardless of the actual class or income of the husband led men to prize their tiny footed wives.
In the 17th century an author known as Liu-hsien offered a list of seven reasons for footbinding:
First: If a girl’s feet are not bound, people say she is not like a woman but like a man and they laugh at her, call her names, and her parents are ashamed of her.
Second: Girls are like flowers, like the willow. It is very important that their feet be bound short so that they will walk beautifully, with mincing steps, swaying gracefully, thus showing they are persons of respectability. People praise them. If not bound short, they say the mother has not trained her daughter carefully. She goes from house to house with noisy steps and is called names. Therefore careful persons bind short.
Third: One of good family does not wish to marry a woman with long feet. She is commiserated because her feet are not perfect. If betrothed, and the size of her feet is not discovered until after her marriage, her husband and her mother-in-law are displeased, her sisters-in-law laugh at her and she herself is sad.
Fourth: The large-footed has to do rough work, does not sit in a sedan chair when she goes out, walks in the street barefooted, has no red clothes, does not eat the best food. She is wetted by the rain, tanned by the sun, blown upon by the wind. If unwilling to do all the rough work of the house, she is called gormandising and lazy. To escape all this, her parents bind her feet.
Fifth: There are those with unbound feet who do no heavy work, wear gay clothing, ride in a sedan chair, call others to wait upon them. Although so fine, they are low and mean. If a girl’s feet are unbound, she cannot be distinguished from one of these.
Sixth: Girls are like gold, like gems. They ought to stay in their own house. If their feet are not bound, they go here and there with unfitting associates. They have no good name. They are the defective gems that are rejected.
Seventh: Parents are covetous. They think small feet are pleasing and will command a high price for a bride.
(From Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by P’u Sung-hing [commonly known as Liu-hsien] translated by Herbert A. Giles, 1880)