GOLDEN LEGACY: The old Chinese custom of foot binding
In the tenth century in China, a prince began the practice of foot binding because he loved the small 'lily feet' of his concubine. Thus traditional Chinese values for over 1000 years dictated that the feet of young girls should be bound to keep them smal l. 'Lily feet', as they were called, were thought to be very dainty and beautiful and a symbol of gentility and high-class. Although the term sounded harmless, it was really very cruel. It began when a girl was between three and eleven years old. First h er foot was washed in hot water and massaged. Then the child's toes were turned under and pressed against the bottom of her foot. The arches were broken as the foot was pulled straight with the leg, and a long narrow cotton bandage would be tightly wound around the foot from the toes to the ankle to hold the toes in place.
After two or three years, a girl's feet actually shrank -- until they could fit into shoes just three inches long. This resulted in feet that were very deformed and unbearably painful to walk on. Sometimes the toes even fell off, because blood could no lo nger reach them. Besides identifying women of gentility or high-class, it prevented women from "wandering," since the bound with bound feet was unable to walk unassisted, and even going a short distance was very painful. These women had to walk with very short mincing steps and could stand only with great difficulty.
Tiny 3-inch-long shoes, called 'lotus shoes', were made of silk and were beautifully embroidered. In the upper classes in China, a good marriage wound be impossible to arrange if the girl had "big ugly feet." The practice of foot binding continued in Chin a for over 1000 years until the Manchu Dynasty was toppled in 1911 and the new republic was formed. Foot binding was then outlawed.
Few Chinese women and girls who came to California had their feet bound as small children in China, but those who did had to spend their lives with the tiny useless feet. However, many of them did manage to walk and could do light household tasks and cook ing. Sometimes, the young girls would have the bindings removed and often their feet would grow enough to permit normal walking. Most of these people migrated to San Francisco and other cities where the upper class Chinese ran lucrative businesses.
Women from the peasant and working classes did not have their feet bound as children because if was necessary for them to be able to work in the home and fields. As these were more frequently the women who came to America, most of the immigrant women did not have bound feet. Most of the Chinese who migrated to the Santa Clara Valley were form this class.
(NOTE: The San Jose Historical Museum has a pair of 'lotus shoes' on display in the Ng Shing Gung located on the museum grounds. The shoes are three inches long, the actual size used. The students may see them when they visit the museum, or refer to #6 on the Slide Set included with this curriculum kit.)