Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ancient Practice, Ancient Reason

            In Western culture, there was Cinderella, whose glass slipper was so small that only she could fit into it. In his search for Cinderella, Prince Charming had girls from all over the kingdom try on the glass slipper that Cinderella left behind. Because of the slipper’s small size, it’s said that girls would cut portions of their foot so that it could fit into the slipper, trying to prove to Prince Charming that they were the one. Having said that, this is only a fairytale; there is no known evidence that girls amputated part of their foot to fit into the glass slipper. However, it is well known that in the past, in Chinese culture, parents would bind their daughter’s foot to keep it a small size.
When the topic of foot binding is brought up, one question always comes to mind: Where is the attractiveness in small feet? At a young age, girls are put through the pain of having their foot bound to prevent its growth. Toes are bent, foot becomes disfigured, and in many occasions, due to the breaking of the bones, the foot starts to rot. In today’s society, it is hard to comprehend why any individual would go through such a painful measure to appear ‘attractive.’ When asked to use a word to describe foot binding, people’s replies were solely of negative adjectives – disgusting, gross, and painful. I believe, it is indeed all of those. The shape of the foot disgusts a lot of people, the rotting is gross, and the breaking of the bones is extremely painful, but this is a contemporary view attributed to the Western world.
            Foot binding in ancient China is a body modification act that is linked to its historical context. In order to understand why this alteration of the foot was so popular in the olden days, it requires a deeper analysis of what was going on during that era of China. Parents nurtured sons to be warriors or scholars while daughters were raised to be someone’s wife. Females’ responsibilities were to become child bearers and to look beautiful in important events, much like what is now a day considered to be ‘trophy wives.’ Foot binding is similar to a show of status. Having their foot bound meant that they are unable to work; the girls would have to be supported by their family until they get married. Families that had the means to do so would signify that they were well off and that their daughter would be highly educated and worthy of marrying into prestigious family, which is what every girl strived for back in ancient China. It appears that the girls were very shallow for only considering husbands with money, but back then marriages were mostly arranged by parents and the more prestigious the family the more the parents would want their daughter to marry into it. The only way to do so was if the girl was highly educated, well mannered, and graceful (determined by posture and movement, which is where the bound feet came in, because small feet resulted in more sway of the hips). If the female did not possess small feet, it was hard for her to find a mate, which caused a burden on the family since the parents would have to feed her and provide other necessities.

            Foot binding is a grotesque act that should not be practiced but it’s important to understand why it was so widespread in ancient China. In the perspective of a westerner, it’s easy to comprehend why this body modification measure yields so much negativity but because it is from another culture, it is wrong to simply discard it. As presented by anthropologists, we should possess cultural relativism – principle stating that we should understand individuals’ beliefs and activities in terms of the individual’s own culture. Putting forth the reason why girls at a young age would be willing to bind their foot is not saying that we need to accept it but implying that we should at least comprehend why it was done.


  1. I like that you brought up Cinderella! Some scholars think that, in the original French oral tradition, 'glass slipper' (Fr: 'pantoufle de verre') might have been 'fur slipper' (Fr: 'pantoufle de vair') since the words 'glass' and 'fur' are homonyms in French. I wonder how the storyline would have been different if this were the case (as in, I don't think you'd slice your feet on a fur slipper as much as a glass slipper).

    1. Oh I had no idea that it might have been fur slipper....interesting to know!

  2. SU, interesting point r.e. the glass slipper. I did not know this either.