On becoming a “real” chinese woman in the past

high class lady feet unwrapped  High class chinese lady, early 20th C

Without pretending to be an expert on China, chinese culture or history,  in this post I want to muse over some stuff that has grabbed the attention of fashionarchaeology.com.


 yes an uncomfortable topic. Understanding why they did it is the least of the problems. How they did it is simply horrific – the bones being purposely broken and then the foot tightly  bound in strips of cloth to make it set into a new “desired” shape….not only the pain suffered but also the psychological violence of it takes my breath away. By ritualizing the event and by mystifying the results into the sphere of beauty and desire, girls were bashed and moulded into their adult identity.

In the picture above, the aristocratic woman looks like a china (!) doll with the layers of make-up that hide any expression from her face. The photo was obviously taken after the end of the bound-feet epoch. She sits and displays her naked feet, her toes have grown into the soles creating a little point at the front of the foot. Westerners especially were begining to investigate these obscure chinese traditions and making photographic reportages. Even older women agreed to show their feet, some accepting to become objects of study by the modern western medical world. Hence the x-ray below

769px-Bound_feet_(X-ray) 1890-1923 bound feet x-ray late 19th century China

Of course nobody (except the victim) ever looked at or touched the disfigured feet. Women would wear beautifully crafted little shoes in colourful embroidered silk to hide them. 

bound feet shoes, Queensland museum silk bound feet shoes, Queensland Museum, Australia

So if this was the accepted practice, when, why and how did it end?

A change in attitude was heralded by a woman, a surprizing fact in itself. No feminist revolution but one extremely powerful female who actively ruled China behind a silk screen for the second half of the 19th Century

Dowager-Empress Cixi late 19thC Empress Dowager Cixi, China, late 19th C.

To know more about her and the extent of her power look out for this book to be published October 2013:

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Jung Chang, the author of hugely successful “Wild Swans” brings more chinese history out of academia for us all to enjoy.

I am certailny looking foward to reading it!


  1. Loved Wild Swans and look forward to Chang’s next look into China. Reading about foot binding always makes me pause. So horrific,and still fashion and pain repeat themselves throughout history only in different ways.


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