Pretty in Pain: The Politics and Aesthetics of Foot Binding to be Discussed at Mount Holyoke College December 7 at 4 pm

For immediate release
November 27,2000


SOUTH HADLEY, Massachusetts--In conjunction with the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum's "micro exhibition" titled The Golden Lotus: Footbinding in China,Jonathan Lipman, Mount Holyoke College professor of history, will deliver a talk titled "Pretty in Pain: The Politics and Aesthetics of Chinese Footbinding" Thursday, December 7, at 4:00 PM. The lecture will commence in the Williston Library's courtyard so that the audience can briefly view the footbinding exhibition and then move to the library's Stimson Room for the remainder of the talk. The event is free and open to the public.

In 1892, an inventory was made of the items kept in a display cabinet that had been received by the College over the years from Mount Holyoke missions around the world. Included in the so-called "Missionary Cabinet" was a group of tiny embroidered silk shoes made for Chinese women with bound feet. Some of these shoes are included in the exhibition, along with photographs, documents, and texts that illustrate and comment upon the controversial custom of footbinding in China. The exhibition will be on view in the Williston Library courtyard through January is also free and open the public.

The Chinese custom of footbinding originated among court dancers in the Song/Sung period (tenth-thirteenth century C.E.), who bound their feet in order to make them appear smaller and more shapely. The practice slowly spread to courtiers and the upper classes. This evolution coincided with a gradual transformation of the roles, physical limitations, and legal status of women in Chinese society, a process which left them far more restricted in their movements and options.

Footbinding was consistent with this change, and by the fifteenth century, it was widespread throughout China, though more concentrated in the north than in the south. One explanation for this, according to Lipman, "lies in the necessity for southern women to work in muddy rice paddies, while northern women could hobble or crawl in their dry fields." All classes of society practiced this mutilation, though some groups (such as the hill-country Hakkasof the south and some Chinese-speaking Muslim communities) rejected it.

Says Lipman, "Scholars regard footbinding as meeting two different, but unfortunately intersecting purposesâ€'the radical limitation of women's physical movement, and the erotic desires of Chinese men for women with tiny feet. Both were served, ironically, through the actions of a girl child's mother and aunts, who undertook the excruciating process of footbinding in order to make their young one marriageable. The matchmaker and potential in-laws would see the feet of a bridal prospect as measures not only of her beauty but also of her family's discipline, their single-mindedness, their willingness to put their daughter through agony in order to achieve their goal of a good match. Tiny feet marked a reliable, well-ordered family; large, ungainly feet could only indicate a lenient, indulgent family and a daughter who would not be a hard worker for her mother-in-law."

Footbinding was first opposed by missionary-educated mid-nineteenth- century Chinese men and (a few) women who shared the Euro-Americans' horror at the practice and organized against it. By the early twentieth century some elite families had begun to allow their daughters to grow "big" (that is, normal) feet, and the custom had virtually disappeared by the 1930s.