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embroidered tiny shoe

A Chinese shoe for a woman with bound feet – Chinese foot-binding

Chinese foot-binding

When we think about Chinese clothing, it strikes us as really weird that women bound little girls’ feet so they couldn’t grow, and made them grow up with little tiny broken feet that they could hardly walk on.

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Clothes in ancient China
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Most women in 19th century Europe and America wore a corset like this one.

Other body-modification fashions

You might have a discussion about whether this is really so unusual though; isn’t it just another instance of women making themselves beautiful through pain?

Many women today wear high heels – is that like Chinese foot-binding?

Tattoos or braces?

Is this comparable to tattooing, for instance? Or piercings? Is foot-binding more like braces? What if the braces are entirely cosmetic? Or is it more like getting a nose job?

High heels or corsets?

Is Chinese foot-binding comparable to European and American women wearing corsets? Or high heels? Many women are required or encouraged to wear high heels to work – should that be allowed? Illegal? Does it matter if you know that high heels came to Europe from Safavid Iran, and that men wore them before women did?

Pointe shoes, men shaving, piercings?

How about ballet dancers wearing pointe shoes? Do men have similar things? maybe wearing ties, or shaving? Or getting piercings? Why are these things similar? or why not?

A man with tattoos on his face

A man shaving his face with a razor

Is body modification okay?

If Chinese foot-binding is like getting piercings, does that mean that it’s perfectly normal to get piercings to make yourself beautiful? Should everyone should do it? Or does it mean that it’s barbaric and awful, and nobody should do it?

How old to consent?

Does it matter if we wait until kids are old enough to ask for it before piercing their ears or noses? Does it matter that people have to be 18 before they get tattoos? How do you feel about it knowing that Chinese girls often wanted their feet bound?

A white person with a lip piercing

A white woman’s belly with tattoos on it

In that case, maybe a better comparison would be to parents who give their kids ADHD medication so they can sit still all day in school? How do you feel about that comparison?

What if it was to make money?

But here’s another thing to think about: some people think the real reason that Chinese families bound the feet of little girls was not to make them prettier or sexier, but to make them sit still so they would spin and weave all day, making cloth that the family could sell. Is that a better reason or a worse reason to bind a little girl’s feet?

Spinning silk in China
History of spinning

Other activities:

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese clothing:

China and Japan (Cultures and Costumes), by Paula Hammond (2003). For teens.

Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes, by Nina Simonds and others (Children’s Museum of Boston, 2002).

Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide, by Valery Garrett (1994). Expensive, but there’s a lot of pictures. Some of it deals with a time period later than this site.

5000 Years of Chinese Costumes, by Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming (1987). This is for theater costumers and historians, and really goes into detail, with great pictures – but it’s not cheap. Get it through your library.

Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli (2004). A novel for young adults about footbinding in medieval China.

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