Concealment in the practice of footbinding


“Chinese woman with bound feet”, painting on glass, 19th century. Taken from Artstor, original source University of California San Diego.

This nineteenth century painting depicts a Chinese woman with bound feet sitting on a small piece of furniture in a minimally decorated room. Records indicate that the painting was found in China, however the nationality of the artist and the subject of the painting are unknown. Since westerners were already frequenting China and had already been exposed to footbinding it is possible that this painting is a western interpretation of the practice which, as Dorothy Ko explains in her article on western views of footbinging, could certainly influence the messages inherent in the painting (1). Although the room surrounding the woman is minimally decorated and somber, the ornate silk clothing with delicate embroidery, fine jewelry and fan in the woman’s hand as well as the ornamentation on the delicately carved side table suggests that the subject of the painting is of relatively high class in Chinese society. The position and relative size of the woman’s shoes indicate the importance of concealment inherent in the practice of footbinding and suggest that the concealment of the feet is the primary purpose of the ritual. sound claim

The colors of this painting are intentionally matched to convey the notion of concealment of the feet. The backdrop of the painting is black which is carried through the woman’s hair, as well as the side table, and the embroidery on the woman’s clothing. This backdrop gives the painting a somber mood. The white section of the woman’s clothing as well as her pale face stands in stark contrast to the black background drawing attention to the upper half of the body. The blue present in both woman’s pants and coat sleeves provides a contrast to the black and white upper half of the woman’s body but blends slightly into the blue chair which de-emphasizes the woman’s lower half. The wide pant legs not only make the feet appear extremely small but also diminish their importance relative to the rest of the woman’s body. Moreover, the shoes seem to blend into the red floor making them even less noticeable particularly relative to the white that stands in stark contrast to the black background in the upper half of the painting. The difference between the shoe color and the pant leg color also suggest that the shoes are not part of the woman’s body, almost as though they are small objects, not belonging to the woman but rather symbols representing an ideal of femininity. This matches Dorothy Ko’s explanation of the body being viewed as a part of the cosmos and not as parts belonging to an individual(2).

The relative size of the shoes particularly to the pant leg size not only emphasizes the importance of concealment in the practice of footbinding, it also emphasizes the idealized nature of bound feet. By using illusions to further reduce the size of the feet beyond the actual practice of footbinding the artist suggests that the central purpose of the ritual is to present a certain vision of femininity to the outside world, one wherein the feet themselves are concealed and replaced with an image of small well decorated parcels. why concealment?

In these ways the painting uses contrasting and blending colors as well as relative sizes to define an idealized notion of what it means to be a Chinese woman in the 19th century and central to this notion is the concealment of bound feet.

-Sophie B.


(1)Dorothy Ko (1997) Bondage in Time: Footbinding and Fashion Theory, Fashion Theory, 1:1, 3-27

(2)Dorothy Ko (1997) The Body as Attire: The shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth Century China, Journal of Women’s History, 8:4, 8-27.