Foot Binding and the Standard of Beauty

What is beauty? Is it universal, or specific to one’s culture? What effect do concepts of beauty have on the behavior and self-image of everyday people?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

 Foot binding is the Chinese custom of applying tight bandages to the feet of young girls. This binding severely limits growth of the feet, deforming them painfully.  Foot binding became popular as a means of displaying status (women from wealthy families, who did not need their feet to work, could afford to have them bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture.


By the 19th century, it was estimated that 40-50% of Chinese women had bound feet, and among upper class Han Chinese women, the figure was almost 100%.  Bound feet became a mark of beauty and was also a prerequisite for finding a husband, who gained status by marrying a woman with bound feet.  As a result, foot binding became an avenue for poorer women to marry into money.  For example, in Guangdong in the 19th century, it was customary to bind the feet of the eldest daughter of a lower-class family who was intended to be brought up as a lady. Her younger sisters would grow up to be the wives of poor men, working the fields and leading a hard life, but the eldest daughter would ideally never work. 


Women, their families, and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about four inches long.  This pride was reflected in the elegantly embroidered silk slippers and wrappings girls and women wore to cover their feet. Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered attractive to some men.


Many women with bound feet were in fact able to walk and work in the fields, albeit with greater limitation than their non-bound counterparts. In the 19th and early 20th century, dancers with bound feet were very popular, as were circus performers who stood on prancing or running horses. Women with bound feet in one village in Yunnan Province even formed a regional dance troupe to perform for tourists in the late twentieth century, though age has since forced the group to retire.  


The Manchu Kangxi Emperor tried to ban foot binding in 1664 but failed.  In the later part of the 19th century, Chinese reformers challenged the practice, but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out as a result of anti-foot binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects.

Modern Chinese Ideals of Beauty

Foot binding is a thing of the past, but many Chinese women still work to attain very specific ideals of beauty. It is common to see Chinese advertisements that feature models with very pale skin or actual Western models that suggest a strong Western influence.  Chinese women go to great lengths to keep their skin as light as possible – wearing long gloves that cover their arms in the sun, carrying parasols, and purchasing skin whitening creams.  In addition, as Chinese consumers become more wealthy, plastic surgery has become increasingly popular.  Women are seeking features such as wide eyes, high nose bridges and a narrow faces with pointed chins.

Advertisement for whitening cream, a popular product for Chinese women.
Advertisement for whitening cream, a popular product for Chinese women.
Advertisement for sun protective gear targeting Asian women.
Advertisement for sun protective gear targeting Asian women.
“Yang Jiayi is a 21-year-old clerk from Beijing. Yang had her eye shape altered through surgery and received eyelash extensions. She also underwent V-line surgery to narrow her face, had a chin implant put in, and underwent nose reconstruction surgery. Last, Yang got Botox injections in her forehead and cheeks, and underwent skin lightening treatment.” – Shanghaiist


The Bottom Line

  1. If you were the parent of a young girl during the Qing dynasty, would you have bound your daughter’s feet?  Why or why not?  What are some of the possible consequences of your decision for your daughter’s future?
  2. What standards of beauty are being conveyed to modern Chinese women in these advertisements?
  3. What messages about what is attractive do modern girls in your country receive from TV, music, movies, advertisements, clothing, and the Internet?  Are these ideals attainable or not?  Do these have an overall positive, negative, or neutral impact on the self image of women and girls?
  4. To what degree is a woman’s value in society determined not by her grades, job, achievement, talent, or intelligence, but by “the male gaze” – how she appears and appeals to others, especially men, as an object of beauty?  Are women objectified in your society?  Provide specific examples from media and the world around you to support your answer.


You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume One – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume Two – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.