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The Real Reason Behind Chinese Foot Binding

Chinese foot binding is a tradition that has been studied and speculated upon for years. The painful nature of the process has left many wondering why it persisted for centuries, and why it happened in the first place. While many historians believe to have a solid understanding of the reasons behind the practice, a new study published in the book "Bound feet, Young hands" maintains that there is one true reason behind foot biding that has been ignored for centuries.

The research was conducted and written by Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates, who are both professors of anthropology. In their study, Bossen and Gates aimed to interview the last generation of women to have grown up during a time when foot binding was commonplace. They spoke with nearly 1,800 women across rural China, and found that the common beliefs of why women bound their feet are largely false.

The goal of achieving "golden lotus" feet was present across China for centuries, until the practice finally began to be abolished in the early 1900's. Viewed today as a harshly oppressive practice, it is commonly understood that women bound their feet because it was seen as attractive by Chinese men, and in turn made them more likely to find a husband.

The supposed appeal of bound feet is also often linked to the belief that small feet were fetishized and viewed as sexually attractive. This has perpetuated the belief that in the past, women in Chinese culture did not contribute to society, and were rather viewed as idle things of beauty and sexual lure. Bossen and Gate's research pushes back on this notion, saying that beauty and sex actually had very little to do with why women bound their feet. 

Their research found that foot binding was not done to please Chinese men, but rather for an entirely economical purpose: to make sure that young girls sat still and did their work, which included making yarn clothes, shoes, mats, and fish nets. In rural China, girls would start working as young as six or seven, and the monotonous nature of their work meant that they would try to fidget and walk away, something they could not do if their feet were bound.

"You have to link hands and feet," says Bossen. "Footbound women did valuable handwork at home in cottage industries. The image of them as idle sexual trophies is a grave distortion of history." Bossen says that the notion that women's feet were bound so that they could not work and simply sit as beautiful objects is quite incorrect. The products that they were made to craft from a young age were incredibly important to the family, and contributed largely to the family's economic prosperity, hence why they needed the girls to sit down and work.

Bossen and Gate's study also dispels another belief behind Chinese foot binding: that it was a display of wealth. Historians have often said that women's feet were bound in order to prove that the household had enough money that the women did not need to work. But in their research, Bossen and Hill found that foot binding wasn't solely for the wealthy at all, and that it was extremely popular among peasant populations.

Their study is further supported by the finding that the tradition began to decline first in areas of China where foreign imports became available, meaning that women's hand labor became unnecessary. "Chinese women were contributing more to society than they received credit for," says Bossen. "They were making very important contributions in the form of textiles [that have] been undervalued and mostly just forgotten."

Of course, this finding does not constitute that the practice of foot binding was any less oppressive to women than previously believed. The practice may not have been entirely about beauty and marriage, but it did leave many women in disfigured states that left them unable to walk. Thankfully, the tradition has been eradicated for decades now, and hopefully it will not be returning anytime in the future.