Han Chinese Footbinding

Han Chinese women's foot binding is a traditional form of foot manipulation associated with China, and with the Han Chinese in particular. The aim of the footbinding was to create a very small foot by manipulating and if necessary breaking the bones in a young girl’s feet. A feature of foot binding was the wearing of very small shoes (the 'lotus shoes') that were often embroidered, in order to emphasise the smallness of the wearer’s feet.

There are various stories about the origins of foot binding in China. Few ancient lotus shoes have survived. It is said, for example, that the practice of foot binding originated among court dancers in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279), and in particular with one royal concubine called 'Precious Thing'. Another legend dates to the thirteenth century and tells of the fame of the dancing girls with tiny feet and beautiful bow (bound) shoes at the tenth century court of the Southern Tang kingdom (937-975) in South Central China.

One of the earliest factual written records relating to foot binding dates to the late eleventh century. It was incidentally written down by a scholar called Xu Zhi (1028-1103), while he was praising a widow who: “..... cannot spare a moment to bind her two feet,/ her only concern is putting the four limbs to good use.” Unfortunately, he gave no further details about the size of her feet or the appearance of her shoes. It would appear, therefore, that some form of foot binding was already current in the eleventh century and it is probably associated with South Central China. What is clear is that over the following centuries foot binding was practiced by elite families and by the eighteenth century it had become widespread among all social levels.

Many women with bound feet were able to walk unaided and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitation than women whose feet were not bound. It has been estimated that by the early nineteenth century up to 40%, and possibly more, of Han Chinese women had their feet bound. Among the women of elite Han families this would have been nearly 100%. Other ethnic groups, such as the Dungan and Hui peoples and some Cantonese, practiced this ‘art’ as well. Some families practiced variations of foot binding, such as loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes, but ‘simply’ narrowed the foot.

In 1644 the Qing Dynasty came to power in China. The new Qing rulers belonged to an ethnic group known as Manchu. Manchu women, contrary to the Han, were officially forbidden to bind their feet. Instead they invented their own form of shoe with either a platform or a central pedestal, which meant that they walked in a swaying manner similar to the ‘lotus gait’ of Han Chinese women with bound feet. These shoes were called 'flower bowls'. Again these shoes were often embroidered in some manner.

The diaspora of the Chinese, especially in the nineteenth century, also meant that Han women with bound feet could be found throughout the world, in Europe, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, as well as America and Hawaii.

See also: lotus shoes sole embroidery; main types of Chinese lotus shoes 


  • CHANG, Pang-Mei Natasha (1997). Bound Feet and Western Dress, New York: Anchor Books.
  • ACKSON, Beverley (1997). Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press.
  • KO, Dorothy (2005). Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Foot binding, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • ROBERTS, Glenn and Valerie STEELE (1977). The three-inch golden lotus: A collection of Chinese bound foot shoes', Arts of Asia, 27, no. 2, pp. 69-85.
  • WANG Ping (2002). Aching for Beauty: Foot binding in China, New York: Anchor Books.



Last modified on Tuesday, 22 November 2022 12:07