Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lotus or Lily Feet - Foot Binding ( 纏 足) in China

I'd just pigged out on a heavy beef comfort food stew - it's winter and yesterday the coldest of the year - and was wandering around the living room when my gaze fell happily on a little pair of highly embroidered ladies shoes bought in China in the late C19 by my great aunt Mimi.

My Great Aunt Mimi (centre, front row) at the time of traveling the world in the late C19

Great Aunt Mimi was absolutely the most cheerful, out-going and positive adult I have ever known. She had no conspicuous abilities or talents - just an enormous sense of delight in life and an uncomplicated unguarded openness with people.

My strongest memory is of her teaching me, in the 1960's at the age of three or four, the song 'Little Brown Jug' with a loving affection and an endless enthusiasm I remember to this day. Her merriness was irresistibly infectious.

My Great Aunt Mimi in her 90's - I knew her in the 1960's, I was 3 or 4

My great aunt never married. She left the family home ...

My Great Aunt Mimi - Standing in white

... to live with one of her nine brothers - till he married.

Then she established her own household.

And took an extended Grand Tour of the world. Not only to the the usual stations of the cross - Paris, Rome and London - but through the Far East, India and China. She was not at all short on courage! And all this journey-ing with a glass eye.

I have always thought of Mimi when I noticed the little Chinese shoes in the various places they have occupied in the places I've lived.

Though I only became fully aware of the accompanying horrors they meant for the wearer as a teenager.

The practice of foot-binding developed in China in the C9 primarily as a symbol of wealth - lotus-footed persons did not require the mobility needed by working people.

Binding began between three and six years of age ...

... to achieve the optimally beautiful and ideal adult lily foot of three inches.

The practice became illegal after 1949 in New China, though it continued in outlying provinces into the 1960's.

The shoes themselves are often beautiful when viewed as works of handicraft. The first two below are deliciously fanciful examples of children's shoes. And the remainder, shoes for adults reflecting varying degrees of wealth.

When I was living in China, you still used to see older women who had undergone foot-binding (not my photos below).

I found this quite good Chinese documentary on the subject, if you'd like a bit more.


  1. Did you ever consider your aunt might have been a lesbian. Certainly she was brave and awfully independent for her day.

    Alan down in Florida

  2. hey alan. yeah, the thought has crossed my mind - 1 in 10 of guys is gay - i wonder what the ratio is for women, and it was so much more closeted in those days. whatever, 'she was fabulous' (samantha, 'sex and the city'!!!). take care. nick

  3. Your Great Aunt Mimi (all caps!) is amazing. But whats more interesting are the contrasting photos. Turn of the century photos and later a photo of her in modern (c.1960s) clothes. Her adventurous spirit is to be admired.
    Incidentally, my late grandmother had bound feet, if I remember, about 4 or 5 inches. Didn't stop her from going to market and doing her chores though! Definitely not a life of leisure for her.

    San in Manila

  4. hey san. good to hear from you. and bout your grandmother! ok, so i guess there were degrees of immobility. philipino friends tell me that in the 60's and 70's there were still chinese women in the divisoria in manila with bound feet. do you recall this? take care. hope to hear again. nick

  5. The Chinese women with bound feet? They were all immigrants from China. The practice was discontinued by native born Chinese. As late as the 80's they even had Chinese opera played in makeshift stages in the downtown Binondo/Divisoria area.


    cool blog, by the way! :)

  6. hey san. i understood, from my philippino friends, that the old women with bound feet seen in manila in Divisoria in the 60's were chinese or born in the philippines of chinese descent. and i have a chinese anthropologist friend who tells me the practice continued on the mainland (and so was reflected elsewhere due to immigration) well into the 60's, though officially it was banned after 1949 in New China.

    glad you like the blog! hope you visit again. take care. nick