1,000 Years of Abuse; Millions (Billions?) Victimized

I was very disturbed reading this one:

In China, for one thousand years, women practiced the custom of binding their feet. Footbinding usually began between the ages of 6 and 9 years. Mothers would first soak their daughter’s feet in warm water, massage them, and trim the toenails. Then, using strips of cloth from four-to-10 feet long, they would begin the two-four-year process of creating a 3-inch foot by bending the four smaller toes under the ball of the foot and then wrapping them tightly under the instep and around the heel.

It was a long, slow, agonizing process. In the best conditions the bandages would be removed every two days, the foot washed, and any blood or infection or putrefying flesh cleaned away. The binding would then be rewound, more tightly, slowly crushing and constricting the bones of the feet. The pain was excruciating, yet the girl would daily be forced to walk on her feet until eventually the bones cracked and broke. Optimum success was achieved when the broken toe bones, for all practical purposes, fused with those on the ball of the foot; when the toes and arch broke and bent so as to meet the heel; and when the arch raised in such a way that it was parallel to the leg.

The “perfect” foot was tiny, slender, deformed and 3 inches in length — 2 1/2 inches if very successful. Approximately 10 percent of the girls whose feet were bound died from infection or gangrene. Naturally a woman was, for all intents and purposes, hobbled, or crippled, for life.

No amount of attempting cultural sensitivity and understanding for this Chinese custom of the past can redeem it from the barbarity that it was. One must conclude that only a fundamentally ill society — one steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality — could have practiced this custom.

Let us never succomb to similar abuses that betray common sense and decency, such as allowing the transmission of our own society’s abusive and unhealthy oversexualization of the body to our children.

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21 Responses to 1,000 Years of Abuse; Millions (Billions?) Victimized

  1. john f. says:

    Of course I knew of Chinese foot binding before but am just as horrified on reading such a reminder about it as I was when I first learned of it.

    Although it is perhaps not as horrible as the female genital mutilation still practiced by some groups in Africa, it ranks up there with some of the worst types of institutionalized abuse that we know of in past societies, in my opinion.

  2. Jettboy says:

    You know, there is still a small group in Africa that has neck binding. The National Geographic loves to take pictures of them (although not sure about recently). It isn’t that the necks would grow longer. They would be dislocated. Take off the gold bindings and it would break their necks. It is basically the same thing.

    I believe that in South America (or was it Egypt or both?) they would actually shape the head of young babies to be elongated. This was for the men. Finally, off the top of my head, Pacific Islanders are known for body tatooing. Despite images of modern tatooing techniques, it was done and is still done one prick at a time.

    Each of these images remind me of the botox craze. Amazing what people will do for culture and beauty.

  3. TT says:

    Thank God for our enlightened Western ways of cutting penises, wearing corsettes, burning witches, oh, and of course massacring Jews. Yeah us! Boo them!

  4. john f. says:

    TT, does your comment imply that you infer from the original post that in condemning Chinese foot binding I approve of abuses and atrocities committed both historically and currently by Western societies?

    It would be odd if you understood a condemnation of the 1,000 years of Chinese torture of young girls to equate with “Yeah witch-burning New Englanders” or “Yeah Nazi massacre of Jews” or “Yeah 40 million US abortions”.

  5. TT says:

    I understood that when you said “One must conclude that only a fundamentally ill society — one steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality — could have practiced this custom” that you considered this to be somehow uniquely evil, contrasting it with non-fundamentallly ill societies which do not practice this custom, such as our own. We are no less fundamentally ill than any other society. Let him who is without sin…yada yada.

  6. john f. says:

    Wow. I mean just wow. I can’t condemn 1,000 years of Chinese foot binding because Western society also provides copious examples of institutionalized abuse?

    For your information, I also believe that our society is fundamentally ill because of how it abuses people’s images of themselves and grinds upon the face of the poor. But do we bind our daughters’ feet? No. So there you go — a modicum of progress, which we should celebrate.

  7. Clark says:

    TT, I think the primitive and unfortunate aspects of our culture’s past are to be condemned as well. I think one could say of slavery, for instance, “that only a fundamentally ill society – one steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality — could have practiced this custom” applies to much of 19th century American and even far too much of 20th.

  8. TT says:

    Clark and John, agreed. Let’s just say that “foot-binding” reports sent to the West from 18th c. missionaries to China were used as definitive evidence of the depravity of the “heathen,” while of course ignoring the depravity of the Christian. Pointing out the “faults” of other cultures is deeply connected to the project of cultural imperialism. This practice continues to this day to inform our own wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. My objection is that the accusation that the Chinese must be “fundamentally ill” because of this (actually quite rare) practice has its own ugly history, and in itself participates in a quite disgusting cultural practice of our own.

  9. john f. says:

    TT, I must say that I don’t see any equivalence of magnitude between criticizing Chinese foot binding (what you are calling cultural imperialism here) and perpetrating Chinese foot binding. The above excerpt was based on an actual description of the process of foot binding. Whether eighteenth-century Westerners spitefully used the suffering of the young girls to their advantage in denigrating the “heathen” is entirely irrelevant here.

  10. TT says:

    My point is not that they are “equivalent.” I didn’t say that. My point was that such criticisms are the basis for Western imperialism, especially the economic and military imperialism perpetrated against the Chinese in the 18th and 19th c. by the West. As for the “actual description,” can you please provide a source?

  11. john f. says:

    Did you think that by “actual description” I meant that it was a description of one actual person’s experience?

    By “actual description” I meant that it was a description of how foot binding worked. What is your source that the linked article’s description of the process of foot binding is flawed?

    Is the gist of your comments that our own society’s past wrongs prevent us from condemning the abuses of other societies lest we commit cultural imperialism? What does that mean for people who condemn cultural imperialism? Aren’t they committing cultural imperialism?

  12. john f. says:

    By the way, although I agree that the use of corsettes was abusive in a certain sense, I see a major category difference between a teenage/adult woman in the culturally imperialist West choosing to wear a corsette because she felt forced to in order to be fashionable (the fundamentally ill society having taught her that her only value was to look good for men or to conform to the then current aesthetic preferences of men) and the binding of small girls (between the ages of 6 and 9) feet, causing excrutiating pain as most of the bones broke over time and crippling the girl for the rest of her life, if she was not one of the 10% of victims that died as a result.

  13. Jenna says:

    Let us learn from the past, not just to avoid the practice of foot-binding, but apply it to the abuses so prevalent in our generation and “enlightened” society. That is the point I got from the original post.

  14. TT says:

    john, again I am really sorry if you felt a) I was being a bully or b) that I thought you were being a bully. Let me see if I can take one more stab at clarifying my point. Let’s say I wrote a blog post that said, “Jews were usurers for 1000 years” and went on to describe how abusive this system was, including a very strong statement about the depravity of such predatory practices that must indicate the foundational corruption of the Jews. I think that most people would recognize that even if this narrative is “true” in some sense, it is not inseperable from the history of anti-Semitism in the West. This narrative about Jewish usury has played a critical role in the history of prejudice against Jews, including WWII. Analogously, our critical evaluations of other cultures are often rooted in a discourse of our own cultural superiority, and our own history of justifying imperial acts on the basis of that superiority. In the same way that Jewish usury is inseparable from the history of anti-Semitism, stories of female foot-binding are inseparable from the history of anti-Sinoism specifically, and the colonialist enterprise more broadly.

  15. SmallAxe says:

    I hadn’t read this except for the link coming over from FPR, and I wish I had seen it sooner. The issue is far more complex then you make it out to be. If you’re really interested in this topic you should take a look at Dorothy Ko’s work (Columbia history prof). Her 2005 book “Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding” has generated a lot of discussion (you can see a partial review here: http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/112.4/fr_1.html). Her earlier (2001) “Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet” is also helpful. These will mitigate some of the perceptions you have about Chinese culture in terms of its “ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality”.

  16. john f. says:

    SA, I’m all for cultural understanding but I am not so sure that reading books giving more nuance to the practice of foot binding will somehow change my position that it is not right to do so to girls and young women. I suppose that if the issue were just adult women binding their own feet, then that would be a different story.

  17. SmallAxe says:

    Allow me to engage a little more then. Your comment after the description provided above is:

    No amount of attempting cultural sensitivity and understanding for this Chinese custom of the past can redeem it from the barbarity that it was. One must conclude that only a fundamentally ill society — one steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality — could have practiced this custom.

    Now I agree with you that this is fundamentality a barbaric practice, but I’m not sure that the conclusion about Chinese society naturally follows (actually I’m really sure that it doesn’t). I think I could argue this on grounds other than the history of footbinding, but since I’ve mentioned Ko, and you see no need to “read books” on the topic, I’ll do my best to articulate parts of her work.

    Footbinding has a history; which essentially means that there are “multiple footbindings”. This is to say that there is in fact no one meaning to footbinding. The account that you provide is one way to look at it, but it doesn’t take into account the multitude of elements and meaning generating parties involved. In fact most “histories” of footbinding are in a sense anti-footbinding histories. This is to say that most accounts of footbindings are not from the women who actually had their feet bound or were binding other girls’ feet. They begin with the premise of the ugliness of footbinding construct their narrative accordingly. They neglect things such as the fact that there was always internal opposition to the practice (a “history” of opposition should also be included). Most of the opposition, coincidentally were men, with even emperors banning the practice. Those who were binding other girls’ feet were usually those with bound feet themselves. And that there are equally gruesome accounts of unbinding feet when trying to “free” these women from the process. This doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the footbinding discourse has been used to demonstrate the ‘backwardness’ of Chinese society and to justify imperialist policy.

    Now, this certainly doesn’t justify the practice. Ko, for what it is worth is considered a feminist thinker (and this isn’t the kind of work you would expect from a stereotypical ‘feminist’). I’m also not trying to persuade you that it is somehow right, which you seem to assume is my intent according to you last comment. Instead I’m trying to prove that your conclusion, namely that pre-modern Chinese society is a “fundamentally ill society… steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality” is ill-conceived, ill-informed, and part of the larger ill-leaning orientalist project.

  18. Adam F says:

    It seems to me that most every society at some point has been “fundamentally ill…steeped in ignorance, superstition, and profound chauvinism/inequality”. To note such is not a justification for imperialist policy, though it is used as such for the truly ill-leaning minority. Let’s learn from each others’ mistakes and move on.

  19. kenjebz says:

    How are you John? Got a baby girl a few weeks ago, that makes me so busy, and that makes me a dady. hehe. my wife being half chinese, we were discussing about this yesterday. She said that the mother do it to make the girls legs straight and to keep them beautiful in a harsh and terrible way. We both doesn’t understand it. And gladly her mother didn’t do the same thing to her, maybe because they’re LDS. Hey come visit my site sometime. And oh, how can I add my site http://jbsolis.blogspot.com to the LDS Select? Who will I contact? Thank you sir, and keep doing great!

  20. Cynthia says:

    TT, are you male? You sound just like those men in the ’60’s who continually conflated different issues in order to perpetrate your own bias. The fact is, the description of foot binding is accurate, but not nearly detailed enough. It was done for one reason only, because men demanded it for a women to be married. Why? Because the bound foot was a sexual object to these men and this has come down through the ages and represented today by “foot fetishists”. Women were crippled, killed and their lives destroyed by the process. They were harmed by those who were supposed to love them. Now, of course, YOU bring up traditional political hokum and conflate the issues. Imperialism? Unless you count male imperialism over women’s bodies as the only true imperialism….and all other forms as extensions.

  21. bkb says:

    My sister gave me a book about a secret langauge used between Chinese women. The details were so poignant that relate the binding of feet. There is a Chinese word for that kind of love by a mother that if memory serves translates to “tough love”. The mothers would coax their daughters according to this book.

    While I think the practice is horrible as are certain African practices done to women, I would not be one to condemn people for living in the times. I am thankful to know a better way and hope to never be treated in such a cruel manner.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to a blog/forum also on word press at helamans-army.com. It recently opened again and we welcome comments.

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