These shoes are so tiny they would sit easily in the palm of your hand. Their design and embroidery are delicate and fine. It may strike you, however, that the stockinged ankles are very large in comparison to the minute shoes. The ankles are too big, for example, to imitate those of a little girl growing up in the higher reaches of Chinese society, an image that fits well with the size of the shoes.
In fact, this tiny footwear is an example of lotus shoes, worn by women whose feet were bound. Tiny feet in China were a symbol of beauty; today, they are synonymous with pain and deformity.
The lotus flower, a symbolically significant flower across Eastern countries and religions, is associated with beauty, enlightenment and rebirth. Every morning the lotus flower emerges elegant and pure from muddy waters. In Buddhism, the white lotus flower is symbolic of Bodhi, or, being awakened. Thus the lotus is also a symbol of desire and fertility.
Origins of feetbinding
The connotations of the lotus flower are subsequently heartwarming – love, kinship, spiritual and mental awakening, a resistance to the impurities of the world. So how did bound feet come to be known as lotus feet? Did the beauty emerge foremost in the eyes of the beholder?
In 10th-century China, Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937–975) asked his concubine to bind her feet with white silk into the shape of a crescent moon. Her feet bound, she danced gracefully over golden lotus flowers. Li Yu praised her feet as perfect. Women sought to imitate her beauty and her movement. The fashion for the lotus foot was born.
As bound feet became more and more alluring to the male gaze, so more women embarked on permanently deforming themselves to fulfil this new ideal. Indeed, as the Dynasties rolled by, foot binding spread from the upper to the peasant classes. For the poor it promised a brighter, more prosperous future. At a time when arranged marriages were frequent, the golden lotus (at four inches, the smallest and thereby most admired foot size) was believed to increase your chances of attracting a husband of higher status and wealth. Though footbinding was a painful process, girls bore the pain with pride. From its beginnings in the 10th century, it was to be an entire millennia before foot binding finally ceased in China after many campaigns to bring an end to the practice.
The risks of reward
Today we primarily view this practice as a violation of women’s rights, a brutal infliction of lifelong pain and deformity. It is hard to reconcile this with the lotus shoes and symbol of beauty to which women aspired. However, we should try to view these objects through the paradigm of the time as much as possible. Feet were not only bound in order to attain the shape, the bones of the toes and the arch of the feet were broken. Infection could spread to the toe bones and toes were often lost. Without toes, bindings could be tightened further, and the golden lotus ideal became even more attainable.
The procedure was started when a girl was between four and nine years old. The process would have varied regionally, but generally feet were first softened in a bath of herbs and animal blood, and the toe nails were cut short. The four smallest toes were then bent under until these bones were broken. They were bound tightly against the sole of the foot and the foot was drawn down until the arch was also broken. Bindings were wrapped in a figure of eight and pulled tighter on each turn. Ideally, the bandages were removed and clean bandages reapplied every day. The toe nails would be trimmed, the feet washed, and the broken joints kneaded to make them more malleable. It could take up to two years of this punishing regime to reach the desired size.
A sign of wealth
A woman would become inhibited in her movements and, in the upper classes of society, this was considered a sign of wealth; a woman with bound feet did not need to work. But not only could she not work, she would have struggled to leave the house, making her dependent on her husband and other men within the household. In the poorer communities, women were still obliged to work the land.
Consider the function of the shoe itself. The pair that we hold in our collection are, I suspect, hand embroidered. Lotus shoes were delicate and desirable, but they also had another very specific function. Very rarely did a woman show her bindings. Unlike the lotus flower, there would have been nothing clean, graceful and pure about them. The debilitating bindings caused the women to adopt a slightly bow-legged sway as they walked. Ultimately, to men and women alike, it was likely known and understood that the allure and the fantasy of the golden lotus would not withstand the reality.