I just started an epic novel about early 20th century China and Hong Kong (The Concubine’s Daughter by Pai Kit Fai). Bound feet is a predominant theme in the early pages and while I’ve read plenty of books about this subject, I never cease to feel sick to my stomach when I read about the process.
If Mao really thought women held up half the sky, they certainly couldn’t have done it with bound feet. They could barely stand up.
When I wrote my master’s thesis about democratic changes in China around 1905, I learned that anti-foot binding societies popped up in the larger cities at that time. Foot binding was practiced in China for 1000 years and was a sign of wealth and prestige. Men thought ‘lily feet’–three inch stubs of broken toes–were erotic.
Lily feet also prevented women from walking very far from home, so the men would always know where their women were. Wealthy parents were inclined to bind their daughters’ feet–starting around age 3 or 5–because they could receive a larger dowry from girls with lily feet.
When I first traveled to China in 1988, I observed an old, hunched woman hobbling along in drab three inch shoes. She could barely walk, even with the help of a cane and a younger relative to lean upon.
Although foot binding was officially banned in China in 1911 and on the island of Taiwan in 1915, I would imagine it continued for some time. Still, it’s very rare these days to see a geriatric woman in China with bound feet.
Another theme in this novel and many others I’ve read is polygamy. You’d be surprised at how long it took the British government to outlaw that in Hong Kong (hint: after I was born!).