The art of confinement

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The Independent Culture
"A PERSON is unfortunate in being born a woman, but still more unfortunate if born a Chinese woman," said the Chinese women's campaigner Cheng Kuan-ying in 1892. In those days, liberal reformers in Britain were campaigning for the right of women to vote; in China, activists like Cheng were concerned with something more basic: a woman's right to move around without constant, agonising pain.

By the end of the 19th century, there were around 100 million women in China whose feet had been bound. Foot-binding kept them in their place - literally. Unable to go outdoors unaided, they were in no danger of running away from their husbands. Instead, they languished at home, prevented from developing any skills apart from making the ornamental shoes which symbolised their mutilation.

The photograph on the right shows a selection of shoes for women with bound feet: exquisitely crafted symbols of torture made in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The foot in the picture - a size three, which is an average size for a Chinese woman - looks elephantine in comparison with the tiny shoes, the smallest of which measure only 3in, about the size of a one-year-old's foot. Made from wood, the shoes were covered with fabric, and intricately embroidered. Different colours were for different occasions: green for celebration, red for the bedroom. Night or day, there was no escape.

But it was the binding, not the shoes, that did the damage. This process could take up to three years and often began when the victims were as young as two years old. The four little toes were bent under the foot and bound in place with bandages, leaving the big toe pointing forward. The bandage forced the toes and heel together, grossly exaggerating the foot's arch, often breaking the toes and forcing the toenails to grow into the soles of the feet. By the end of it, the feet were irretrievably deformed. The gruesome task was usually undertaken by mothers, who ignored the girls' screams because they knew the alternative: no husband.

The practice originated in the 11th century, when - as one theory goes - the Chinese upper classes decided to copy the tiny shoes of the imperial dancers. Soon, for middle- and upper-class girls all over the country, tiny feet became synonymous with wealth and status.

Much has been made of the link between bound feet and sexuality. It was widely bel-ieved that binding the foot produced a tighter genital region; while, according to the Amer-ican feminist Andrea Dworkin: "The binding and the sexual use of the crippled female was saturated with the values of conquest."

By the turn of the century, international criticism of the practice had grown clamorous. But an imperial decree outlawing it had little effect: it took a revolution to end foot-binding. The Nationalists, recognising that the practice effectively crippled half the potential workforce, made it a penal offence in 1911. Perhaps the most tragic victims of all were those girls born into imperial China who had their feet bound, only to learn in 1911 that their suffering had been in vain.

Today, it is difficult not to admire the delicate beauty of these shoes - and difficult to recall without a shudder the barbaric practice to which they owe their existence.

! An exhibition of `Bound Foot Shoes from the Qing Dynasty' runs from 28 March to 26 April, at Linda Wrigglesworth Chinese Costume and Textiles, 34 Brook Street, London W1 (0171 408 0177)