Ending centuries of a painful cultural practice that often left women crippled, disabled, and in constant pain, Chinese empress Cixi outlawed foot binding on this day in 1902.
Born Yehenara on 29 November 1835 to a family from the ruling Manchu minority, Cixi was, by all counts, an ordinary girl. But at age 16 she was brought to the Forbidden City to join the harem of Emperor Xianfeng. Her ascent in the court was rapid. She soon became a favorite of the Emperor, who loved to hear her sing and who chose her to visit his bedchamber most nights. The concubine soon bore the Emperor a son, earning her the title, Cixi or “empress of the western palace.” When Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861, Cixi’s five-year-old son was his only male heir and was named Emperor Tongzhi, and his mother empress dowager and regent ruler. By 1881, after the death of her son and another dowager empress, Cixi became the de-facto ruler of China.
The astute ruler exercised her power shrewdly and pushed for many modernising reforms. Among them was stopping the popular and painful practice of foot binding, a centuries-old custom in China to keep women’s feet fashionably small and dainty. The custom most likely originated with court dancers in the Song dynasty and quickly spread to upper class women, and eventually all classes in China. The process began as early as two years of age, before the foot’s arch had fully developed. A girl’s foot was soaked and massaged, then her toes broken, curled under the sole of her foot, and tightly bound with bandages wrapped in a figure-eight pattern. In some cases, the process would be repeated daily to achieve the most desirable results. Done without pain relief, foot binding was extremely painful. Elder female relatives or professional foot binders, rather than mothers, often performed the binding, since it required a degree of indifference to a young girl’s pain. But bound feet were considered intensely erotic in Chinese culture, partly due to the resulting tiny steps and swaying “lotus gait” it forced women to adopt. And women who achieved the ideal dimensions—a 7-centimetre-long, lotus-shaped foot—had the best marriage prospects.
But the process was intensely painful and besides crippling and deforming scores of women, often led to infections, disease, and sometimes septic shock. Recognising the way in which foot binding constricted a woman’s freedom, independence, and power, which she enjoyed in spades, Cixi banned the practice on 1 February 1902. Though the ban was soon rescinded, in 1912, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China forcibly banned the practice. The ban remains in effect today.
Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Caption: An 87-year-old woman shows her bound feet at her home in Liuyi village in the southern Yunnan Province in 2007.