Women Caught Between Eras: Two Periods, Two Pains, Two Types of Footwear
Foot-binding was a traditional practice in ancient China where the feet of Han Chinese women, between the ages of 4 and 8, were bound by foot-binding cloth tightly around the four smaller toes, except for the big toe, bending them towards the sole.This practice continued until the foot structure was fixed and no longer changed, resulting in the characteristic small and pointed shape known as bound feet. By the end of the nineteenth century, the foot-binding culture had gradually declined amidst the clash of Chinese and Western civilisations and the transition between old and new cultures, losing its original cultural respectability and legitimacy, and foot-binding women began to unbind their feet. However, the damage caused by foot binding makes it difficult for the feet to fully recover, resulting in a state between the natural feet and the bound feet, known as the unbound feet.
Cultural and bodily transformations have spurred the creation of a new type of footwear, namely unbound-feet shoes. Bound-feet shoes served the purpose of tightly binding and maintaining the shape of bound feet, while unbound-feet shoes provided more space for the unbound-feet to stretch their toes, forefoot, and arch. Bound-feet shoes had a pointed front and wider back, with an open mouth and a significantly small overall size, featuring a pointed toe. On the other hand, unbound-feet shoes had an increased width in the forefoot area, resulting in nearly equal width throughout the shoe, and a rounded toe. These changes have expanded the space within the shoe, accommodating the stretching of the feet. Furthermore, the rounded toe also symbolizes cultural progress for women. ‘once a woman unbound her feet, she should no longer wear pointed shoes but instead switch to round-toe shoes, signaling her ‘progressive status to others.’
Foot-binding shoes were considered intimate items for women. They were handcrafted by bound-feet women and were seen as symbols of sexuality and displays of Confucian virtues of female beauty. However, after foot releasing, many urban women no longer made their own shoes, leading to the emergence of numerous women's shoe shops that began selling and customizing unbound-feet shoes. The pair of unbound-feet shoes depicted in the photo is exquisitely crafted with beautiful embroidery, made by skilled artisans at a women's shoe shop.
The change in how these women obtained footwear signifies that in the context of the new culture, the privateness of Han Chinese women’s footwear has been broken, which also implies the breach of privateness regarding women’s feet. It means that women’s feet are gradually returning to their inherent position within the female body, no longer regarded as family property, marital capital, or symbols of sexuality. The significance attributed to women’s feet within Confucian culture and the male gaze is diminishing, and they are increasingly seen as just a part of body.
Image: A pair of Unbound-feet shoes, Yan Ling bo‘s private collection.