The Concealed Truth

The most exotic aspects of a foreign culture captivate observers, especially those that are intended for the private sphere; foot binding exemplifies this truth. It is a tradition that endured for centuries and whose practitioners could not precisely define how or where it began, which added to the foreigner’s confusion.

As an analysis of the image above will demonstrate, fully understanding the Chinese tradition of foot binding demands thorough knowledge of Chinese history and philosophy.

the thesis claim is too general to tackle

The central organizing principle of Chinese civilization is the Confucian philosophical school, which places harmony and order as the highest goal of civilization. His teachings came to the forefront during the Warring States Period during which time dukes violently contested for supremacy as Zhou authority foundered. He argued for renewed faith in authority by respecting one’s allotted station in life: ministerial and aristocratic loyalty to the throne. The same extended to a father’s authority over his children and the husband’s authority over his wife. To defy what Confucius considered to be the natural and proper order of affairs was tantamount to barbarism. “True” Chinese in his eyes not only exemplified civility and order in their personal affairs, but extended it to the public sphere as well.

It is within this intellectual context that foot binding arose. In the image above, the woman’s foot delicately sits in his hand. It is significant to note that her foot is just a bit smaller than his hand. To achieve feet that small required deliberate commitment to the painful practice: even when crying out in agony as her feet grew, she must have never loosened her bandages. By extension, the smallness of her feet implied that she came from a family who prized Confucian civility, discipline and order because she is their product. This mattered because marriage bound together lineages as well as individuals, mixing their fortunes with each other. Marrying a present of equal or greater standing could enhance a lineage’s prestige, but it could also be a liability for the higher ranking lineage in the marriage. Therefore, the sheer smallness of her feet represents her commitment to achieve mastery over the natural form of the human body, to impose civility: it was a guarantor of their commitment to the Confucian ideals.

In addition to smallness, proper drapery was an essential component of the Confucian conceptualization of civility. Through simple comparison, the observer of the image above can see that the man’s clothing is far less ornate than the woman’s clothing. He wears his hair in the Manchu style and dons silk robes, but that is the extent of his outfit. The woman’s clothing is replete with many rich shades of red. Red is significant because it is used for festive, celebratory occasions in China and is associated with happiness. These rich shades of red cascade down her body in the form of exquisite silk robes and leggings. They terminate in red, silk stockings that conceal the bound foot. The stockings consist of multiple images, which could signify things such as good fortune or fertility. From the man’s gaze, we learn that it is the patterns on the stockings that hold his attention rather than the form of the bound foot itself. It would have likely been drenched in perfumes, which would have made it pleasant for the man to hold the bound foot in his hand while studying the stocking.

In conclusion, understanding the appeal of foot binding depends on understanding Confucian thought. His teachings emerged during the Warring States Period where multiple aristocrats fought for control over the dying Zhou state. Confucius believed that ending this conflict hinged on people’s accepting their natural station in life: nobles were subservient to their emperor, just as children were to their parents and husbands to their wives. Foot binding came to epitomize this commitment to order because it required incredible discipline to overcome the pain of the process. Therefore, it became a proxy for her moral capacity. Further accentuating this was her commitment to proper drapery. What aroused and enticed the man was not the mangled foot itself, but its enshrining Confucian civility and its use as a medium for expressing virtues such as fertility or good fortune through pleasant smelling silk that a man could observe from the palm of his hand as demonstrated in the image above.

see what happens if search for social-cultural or gendered connotations through the denotations of the concealed bound feet, the embodied shoes, the color red, veiled face, the relation/poison between the bride and groom