Foot binding was abominably cruel, deforming the whole body as walking put pressure on the pelvis. Sometimes the flesh of the foot was encouraged to rot away, by sharp objects within the binding. Why would people do this? How would they rationalise it? The practice lasted a thousand years, and women bound their daughters’ feet. How could you see your daughter in the pain of having her bones broken, and necrotic tissue on the foot? As a way to control her? As a way of gaining some advantage for her?
John Mao, who has a photograph of a bare foot which made me gasp in horror, writes, The most common reason is that foot binding is often thought of as a prerequisite for marriage. The second reason is family honour. Families with a great reputation, families wanting to maintain their goods reputation, bind their daughter’s feet. For upholding this tradition for so long, the motive was for men to be able to dominate women. He explains the Qing dynasty sought to eradicate the practice intermittently from 1645, and foreign missionaries in the 19th century worked against it. Perhaps that made reactionary Chinese do it defiantly, as their thing. It was a way for poorer families to marry their daughter into money; the wealthiest Han families all bound their daughters’ feet.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: The tiniest feet — three-inch “golden lotuses,” as they were known — were important as a sign of status for women who could afford not to work in the fields or walk to market; the bound foot was a sign and instrument of chastity too, by limiting the movements of women. And you can’t overstate the force of convention: Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.
Amanda Foreman: From the start, foot-binding was imbued with erotic overtones. Women, unable to resist or escape. For women, Neo-Confucianism placed extra emphasis on chastity, obedience and diligence. A good wife should have no desire other than to serve her husband, no ambition other than to produce a son, and no interest beyond subjugating herself to her husband’s family…The act of foot-binding—the pain involved and the physical limitations it created—became a woman’s daily demonstration of her own commitment to Confucian values.
Shiye Fu seeks to hear the women. One may feel revulsion at the practice while seeking to understand and respect the women themselves. Saying this is a way to make women docile might be imposing “the rhetoric of modernity”. In reaction to that, a feminist view might see it as “a voluntary ordeal undertaken by mothers to inform their daughters of how to succeed in a world authored by men”, or a practice where women show their agency and their control over their own bodies. Human beings use our bodies as tools, and the way we do this is controlled by culture: Based on this argument, I will then move on to discuss footbinding at the level of body technique, and to shed light on how bodily pain works to reflect the complicated relationship between body and self in the Chinese context.
In other words, I can’t know.