Foot-binding, corsets, and tattoos – Ancient China project

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embroidered tiny shoe

A Chinese shoe for someone with bound feet

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. (More on foot-binding)

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

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 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?

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?

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

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

Does it matter that we usually 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?

A white person with a lip piercing

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.

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?

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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By | 2017-06-09T14:09:36+00:00 June 9th, 2017|History|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Foot-binding, corsets, and tattoos – Ancient China project. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 9, 2017. Web. January 17, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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