18 November 2008

Social Taboos: Golden Lotus

By Jacquie Rogers

The last factory that made shoes for Chinese women with bound feet stopped production of lotus shoes in November of 1999. For nearly a thousand years, bound feet, preferably no more than three inches long, were not only fashionable, but considered the ultimate in feminine beauty.

No one knows when the custom of San tsun gin lian or Golden Lotus began, but it first appears around 900AD in Northern China. Some say it began with the Latter Tang Dynasty (923-936 AD), when the emperor took a liking to a concubine who danced upon a lotus-shaped pedestal. Whatever started the practice is less important than the profound affect this custom had on the entire social fabric of Chinese culture.

A man who could keep a wife with bound feet showed his own financial power and prestige, so men of a certain social order refused to consider women with "clown feet" or unbound feet as brides. Besides, dainty feet covered with beautifully embroidered silk slippers called lotus shoes were considered highly sexually attractive. The smaller the woman's feet, the more likely she would be to attract a wealthy or well-positioned husband.

As the years passed, the custom filtered down to the lower social orders as well, although in some areas of China, foot-binding was never practiced. Some say foot-binding was a way to keep women subjugated, since a populace of women who could barely walk wouldn't pose a threat to the body politic. Women stayed close to home, and when they did venture out, they required assistance to stand and walk.

Toward the end, young girls of all classes had their feet bound. Zhang Ru-lian, an elderly Chinese woman with bound feet explains, "You see, when a girl became eligible for marriage a matchmaker would find a man for whom the young girl might be suitable. Then she would arrange a foot viewing. The man would come to the girl's house just to look at her feet. If he thought they were too large he would turn her down. This was a very embarrassing affair, should it happen, since the whole village would surely hear about it."

Mothers started their girls' foot-binding between the ages of two and ten (one lady said she started at 17). The four smaller toes on each foot were broken and turned under the sole. Then long strips of cloth tightly bound the broken toes in place and slowly broke the arch of the foot so the toes bent back to the heel. The initial shaping took about two to three years, but the feet were bound continuously for ten more years to make sure they didn't grow. It was a mother's responsibility to make sure the binding was done properly and tightly so her daughter would be considered high quality marriage material.

Infections were commonplace. Sometimes the toenails grew into the foot, often flesh would rot and fall off, and sometimes gangrene set in. One source said nearly 10% of all Chinese girls experienced either serious difficulties or sometimes even death. Then there are the lifelong problem associated with bound feet--pain, fungal infections, and crippling. It has been shown that women with bound feet have increased bone-density loss, as well a difficulties with daily duties because of problems associated with the foot-binding.

So why would the custom endure? Sex is always a strong allure. Jim's Asian Studies says, "It was believed that the way foot binding made a woman walk strengthened the vagina and made it more narrow. The girls' buttocks and 'jade gate' were believed to develop to such a degree that she could grip her husbands 'jade spear' more tightly. . . There was also a large number of pornographic paintings and engravings with scenes of men fondling women's feet. It's no wonder that men were so adamant about their wives having bound feet."

Wikipedia says, "Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet." Hence, an estimated 4 billion women over 1,000 years have suffered the pain of foot-binding.

Back to the factory . . . it was the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory and when did it START making shoes for bound-feet women? No, not a hundred years ago. It was in 1991 when the owners saw a niche market whose needs weren't being met. An estimated two million Chinese women, most over the age of 70, live with bound feet.

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Minnesota-China Connection
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