Economics not sex was behind this cruel Chinese practice, according to new research

A woman with three-inch bound feet. The Chinese practice of binding feet started in the 7th century, and was thought to occur to cater to men's sexual tastes. The practice stopped in the early 20th century.
Image: Getty Images

Bound feet the cruel Chinese practice of reducing a normal foot to 10cm (3 in.) stubs were once part of a stereotypical East Asian allure.

The results of the practice, in which the toes of girls as young as four were broken and bound to the sole of the foot with cloth, was widely believed to have had an erotic appeal.

“Women’s small feet came to be considered as the most intimate part of her body, the very symbol of femininity, and the most powerful centre of sex appeal,” writes Robert van Gulik, a scholar of East Asia, who authored a study on the sexual life of the ancient Chinese in 1961.

But a new book, Bound Feet, Young Hands, by Laurel Bossen, a professor emerita of anthropology at McGill University, seeks to bring a new perspective to the long-discontinued practice economics.

Women who had their feet bound were essentially restricted to work helping weave and do work by hand, according to Bossen, who was interviewed by CNN. Foot-binding ensured that young girls sat still and worked on boring, repetitive tasks, she said.

Not that sexy.

Image: Getty Images

Bossen contends that foot-binding would have been a hush-hush affair if it was an erotically charged kink.

“You have to link hands and feet. Footbound women did valuable handwork at home in cottage industries,” Bossen told CNN. “The image of them as idle sexual trophies is a grave distortion of history.”

Bossen and her fellow researcher Hill Gates, who is a professor emerita at Central Michigan University, talked to just under 1,800 elderly women in rural China to discover how the practice declined.

The researchers found that foot-binding endured because factory-made cloth was not available in the rural areas where the women lived. The women had began hand-spinning yarn as young as 6 or 7, the same age when their feet were bound.

Many women the researchers spoke to made the connection between work and foot-binding.

“My mother bound my feet when I was around 10 years,” one 84-year-old woman told researchers. “At around age 10, I started to spin cotton.”

The last reported case of foot-binding occurred in 1957, after the practice steadily declined from the turn of the 20th century, when the newly minted Republic of China banned the practice. When the communist Chinese government took over in 1949, the practice was virtually wiped out.

Learning about foot-binding’s demise could have implications in the current fight against customs like female genital mutilation, Bossen told CNN.

Educational campaigns to stop the practice might not be enough, the professor said.

“It’s hard to see an economic side to [female genital mutilation],” she added. “But you cannot look at foot-binding and conclude that an ideological campaign will be effective.”

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