China’s Song Dynasty And The Origins Of Foot Binding

by bria4123 on April 15, 2012

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Though China’s Song Dynasty is often considered the greatest civilization of its time, it started one of the most barbaric customs to be inflicted on women.

It began when girls reached the age of this princess in Ping Yao. The position of women in Europe in the 12th century rose somewhat because of the cult of Mary, and increasing overseas travel during the Crusades and pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279) took steps backwards that would have astonished cavemen. How did the disgusting practice of foot binding ever get established?

The Song Dynasty’s revival of Confucianism was one reason. It’s a great philosophy for men who are dads and older brothers–the rest of the household must obey them. Confucian moralists wrote that a wife’s position in her new husband’s house is to serve everyone in his family, and to put her interests last. When he died, his family expected her to remain a widow forever.

Not everyone in the Song Dynasty followed this stuff. Some women remarried, and others owned property. But things got worse during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The ruling Mongols wanted to preserve their nomadic customs, and they took away Chinese women’s rights. Confucian moralists loved it–all authority was now in the hands of the male head of the family, just as orthodox Confucians wanted.

So foot binding began in a cultural landscape in which the position of women was generally declining. But how did the actual practice start?

Dieter Kuhn, in The Age of Confucian Rule, writes that foot binding probably began in upper class families during the Song Dynasty. Tang Dynasty poets didn’t mention it. That great dynasty’s multicultural vivacity extended to women–they rode horses, and some even played the rough game of polo.

But tiny silk shoes and socks from the 13th century suggest that foot binding became common among scholar-officials all over China. Bandages wrapped up the feet so tightly that the 4 small toes were pushed under the foot. This excruciating practice began when toddlers’ bones were still soft, and continued until their feet could fit little silk shoes.

Kuhn writes that foot binding started in the 10th century among professional dancers, who might have wanted to make their feet elegant-looking. It remained rare in the 11th century, and several writers protested it. But it became so popular by the 13th century that women were inflicting the torture on their daughters. This might have allowed them to compete for the wealthiest husbands. Money was especially important in the Song Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty’s aristocracy had been wiped out–money and a position as a government official now gave people the most stability. Common households that could afford the loss of a daughter’s labor began to bind feet too, hoping to land a rich groom

This website is about cultural wealth. But ideals of elegance have been ruthlessly imposed on women many times. The Victorian West and Fundamentalist Islam are also good examples. But nobody was oppressed more harshly than the good women of China.

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