Welcome to my first “sexy history” post in the Ancients series! This week I will be exploring the tradition of foot binding in ancient China, particularly its erotic aspects for that culture.
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
Foot binding endured in China for over a thousand years. China has always been a remarkably homogeneous country, with the Han being the majority ethnic-cultural group. Therefore, whatever the Han were doing became the norm. And for reasons not completely understood – though there are legends, of which I will speak later – for a millennium the Han Chinese decided that in order for a woman to be marriageable, she must have tiny bound feet. The ideal was a three-inch long, bulb-shaped foot that reflected the size and form of a lotus bud. Hence the rare and precious goal: the three-inch golden lotus foot.
My goal here is not to go into detail about how bound feet were achieved; there are many other excellent resources on that subject, and wonderful historical fiction with Chinese protagonists for those who wish to delve into it further. Suffice it to say that the process began in early childhood, usually when the girl was between three and six years old. Her feet were wrapped in silk, folded, bent, and broken, with subsequent bindings to form the desired shape. It took several years for the bones to set, and for her whole life the woman had to keep her feet tightly wrapped in order to maintain them.
Why put little girls through such agony? The answer is simple: a mother’s love. Mothers who loved their daughters wanted them to marry well – the only acceptable lifestyle for a woman of the time – and in order to get a good match, a girl must have tiny feet. So although this process sounds gruesome and cruel (it certainly seems that way to me!), it should not be looked at as simple torture. Rather, it was the expression of a family’s concern for their daughter’s future. A desperate act of love.
It is a myth that bound-footed women could not walk at all. They could; in fact, the binding produced a particular rolling gait that was considered to be highly erotic. People also thought this special walk tightened the muscles of the vagina, thus leading to heightened pleasure for men. Bound feet were an erotic body part in and of themselves, too. Entire books were written on the many ways a man could pleasure himself with a woman’s golden lotuses. A woman never willingly revealed her naked feet. They were always bound in silk and covered in beautiful embroidered slippers (Every good seductress knows that covering up – even just one small body part – heightens arousal to the boiling point. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean!) Even covered, people knew what bound feet looked like. The deep cleft between the heel and toes was thought to suggest the cleft between a woman’s legs…
Of course there were societal benefits to binding women’s feet, too. Tiny-footed women were more or less home-bound, unable to run around or do hard work outside the house. Thus bound feet were a symbol of social status. Also, they insured that women would stay put, engaged only in appropriate feminine tasks (that is to say, those that took place only in the home). And bound feet made it very difficult for a woman to go anywhere, keeping her safely behind walls… and away from other men. Bound feet assured a woman’s chastity.
It was for these reasons: family & cultural pressure, societal expectations, and eroticism, that foot binding endured so long. When it ended, it was in sudden dramatic fashion – causing much pain and heartbreak in the process – and was finally crushed by the Cultural Revolution.
Of course, none of that answers the most interesting questions. Why did foot-binding start in the first place? How did it even come about? Who came up with this bizarre and painful tradition?
The short answer is, nobody really knows. I had real difficulty finding scholarly articles on the topic; academics tend to stay away from the baffling and explainable. However Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite quasi-reputable resource, lists several ideas. These include:
1. A favored empress (or concubine), possibly Daji, with naturally deformed feet, called clubfoot. She jealously ordered all other girls to deform their feet similarly. Which is an unlovely thought indeed…
2. A court dancer named Yao Niang who performed on tiptoe while standing on a golden lotus pavilion. The emperor was so transfixed, and Yao Niang’s dance so graceful, that others wanted to imitate her. Which eventually led to the binding of their feet.
We may never know the true origins of foot binding. But naturally, I chose the option that allows for some beauty and seduction, that of Yao Niang the court dancer. My story blends the possibilities by giving my character, Yao Niang, the club feet. The ancient world was not kind to those with physical disabilities. (Nor, for that matter, is the modern one.)
How would she have lived? What might she have done to survive? For that matter, what would she not have done? These are the questions I explore in How The Lotus Blossoms. (Of course, because it’s me, I took the liberty of sexing it up. Yao Niang’s disability may indeed become a source of triumph, or despair… either way, she’ll stop at nothing to enrapture the emperor, in bed and on the stage.)