When you first hear the expression “lotus feet”, you probably think of small feminine-like feet or part of a lotus flower. I can tell you right now that you are not so lucky to receive such an answer.
What are lotus feet?
Lotus feet are a far more gruesome concept of feet binding of the young Chinese women from the Song dynasty in the 10th century. And it was a desirable beauty concept until the early 20th century, which isn’t a small period. Feet binding is a practice in which an elderly skilled Chinese woman tightly binds the toes of a little girl, usually between the ages of 4 and 9. They tuck the toes under the feet. Placed in such a position, women would force the girls to walk on their bound feet until the toes started to break.
In such a tradition, the result would be small “admired” deformed feet. Lotus feet helped a young woman make a more prestigious marriage. It was a beauty concept at that time in China and areas around China. Women with bound feet would be the most beautiful ones, more elegant. Lotus feet would indicate a woman’s placement in a higher class because the poorest ones didn’t or couldn’t practice this fashion.
My first time learning about this was while reading a book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan written by Lisa See. I highly recommend this book. It describes in detail how to bind feet, but of course, only to those that can endure such a lively description. The story focuses on women who bind their feet as a part of a tradition and how it affects their lives. If you would rather just watch instead of reading, there is a 2011 movie adaptation of the book.
A process of feet binding
If you don’t find this pleasant, then I recommend that you skip this part.
So, the practice differed from one area to another but I’ll explain the most common way of creating lotus feet. This process starts at a very young age, due to lack of any struggle. Experienced women would stop the growth of the feet in a way so that it stays small and elegant. In order to reduce that pain, everyone started at winter months, when feet of the little girls would go a bit numb and the pain would be more endurable.
First, to soften the skin, each foot is placed in a bowl filled with various herbs and animal blood. This mixture also aids the binding because it is soaked with the same herbs. Before bandaging the feet, elderly women first cut the toenails of the small girls getting as close to the center as possible preventing the ingrowth and dangerous infections. Afterward, the woman firmly presses the toes into the sole of the foot, curls under or forcibly squeezes until the toes break. Sometimes they wouldn’t break but after bandaging with aforementioned cotton bandages, girls walked around until all of their toes broke.
Not only were the toes forced under the foot but also the heel would be pushed forward to the toes, trapping the entire foot in such a position. Of course, the bandages would often be replaced to stop the possibility of infections and with every replacement, the women would press and tighten the feet to achieve smaller and smaller shapes. So, the idea behind this was to break the toes and the heel to create an arch. During the entire lifetime, they could no longer move their toes.
This disability forced them to walk slowly while creating small elegant steps. With each bandage replacement, the feet are carefully washed, trimmed and loosen with herbs. Afterward, the rotten flesh is removed, and yes, it was a regular thing that some small parts of the flesh would rot due to blood vessels not receiving the necessary blood. Women who would care for the girl’s feet were usually a member of the girl’s family or even a professional foot binder who had a rich experience and a mentality for it.
Honestly, just reading this sounds soulless and monster-like, only women with a strong stomach or insensitive mind could do bind feet for a living or to their own children and grandchildren. But then again, if you needed someone to break your feet, you would want someone with a lot of skills and determined mind. Why? Because if she would do it badly, the girl would endure more pain, possible death from infection or a possibility that the feet wouldn’t match the standards at that time. Only the most “beautiful” lotus feet would bring you a prestigious image and possible prosperous marriage.
But what comes afterward?
So, the feet are broken, bound and reshaped but is that the end of the story?
It is common sense to assume that doing such work never went smoothly and without any worry. Nails tend to grow, cut flesh tends to bleed and broken bones bring a lot of pain. Combine all three and you will get possible complications like infection and broken bones. Let me explain the latter one first. In elderly age, there is a higher chance of losing balance, leading to broken hips or other bones. Even though toes and heels would heal over the years, they still often broke because of its unnatural state. And because they remained quite soft.
Another reason why you would want someone more skillful at that time to bind your feet was the desire to reduce the possibility of paralysis and muscular atrophy. It seems that women were ready to do a lot of things to their bodies just to match beauty standards that were desirable at that time. But then again, are we any different today? We still modify our body appearance with plastic surgery, makeup, tattoos… The only difference is that we have anesthesia to dull the pain and a smaller rate of dying as a consequence of doing changes on your body.
So, as mentioned before, infections were another dire state that women tried to avoid. How would that happen? Well, toenails would continue to grow and plunge into the skin. Some tried to prevent that by completely pulling the nails off. In addition, there is a high reduction of the blood circulation, toes aren’t healing and the result is constant bleeding. To achieve a more “perfect” shape, some had a shard of glass placed between the toes and the heel. This would bring a higher chance of infections. Small shards of glass could enter the bloodstream and they often did.
Do you remember what happens when you are not that lucky and infections spread further? Further into your bones and flesh, it would lead to bones going soft and eventually toes falling off. Hard to believe but that is not the worst scenario. Final steps would be a septic shock, gangrene, and other infections. A small percentage of women died from these diseases eventually.
Erotic appeal of broken feet
So, the main question is why women bound their feet? The answer is – the smaller the feet, the more desirable would a woman be. At that time, Her feet are the most attractive and erotic part of her being. And I dare say that because there is a sex manual called “Pillow Book” from the Qing Dynasty that has 48 different ways of playing with Lotus feet. Women would always cover their feet, only revealing them to their husbands. The shape and size of the Lotus feet determined the desirability of a woman. There was even a scale of different sizes of feet:
- Golden Lotuses
- around 4 inches / 10 centimeters and smaller
- the most desirable and perfectly bound feet
- Silver Lotuses (Iron Lotuses)
- around 6 inches / 15 centimeters and bigger
- the least desirable for marriage
Covering bound feet most of the time was a necessity because they were the most intimate part of the female body. Even more intimate than the human genitalia. That’s why you will find many arts from the Qing to Song dynasty picturing naked bodies with their feet covered. Men found Lotus feet the most attractive bodily part. They considered the smell of the feet pleasantly scented. They even believed that bound feet would cause the vagina to tighten up and thighs to become heavier. In a modern time, you would say this desire corresponded to foot fetishism. I read someplace that the foot would remind of a male genitalia indicating male subconscious homosexuality.
Foot binding started as a fashion, but in today’s interpretations, it is male power over women. A chance for women to marry to a higher class but eventually, it was an expression of identity. After the Mongols invaded China in 1279 and Manchus’ conquest in 1644, those two events led Hans to differentiate themselves from the Mongols by binding female feet but everything has an end. There are less than 50 Chinese women alive today with Lotus feet and such practices are currently forbidden. If you wish to see and learn more about those women, you can read about it in this article.
If you find this culture interesting and you wish to expand your horizons, check this review of the Handmaiden or news about Attack on Titan manga! I hope you found this topic quite interesting and that it didn’t scare you for life!