The unusual Chinese practice of foot binding began during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Although the tradition was officially banned by the Republic of China in 1911, the practice continued for quite some time in rural areas.
Foot binding was initially a rather mild and harmless practice, performed by women attempting replicating the look of imperial concubine practices – who danced with their feet tightly wrapped in silk. But, by the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911), feet were forcibly bound so tightly and so early in life that crippling deformations resulted. Due to the fact that these women were deprived of autonomy and required constant assistance, foot binding became something of a status symbol.
Beginning as early as age five, the process was long and painful. Due to the tight binding four toes on each foot would break and become highly deformed within a year. Eventually a high arch was formed; the foot would become concave and resemble a ‘lotus blossom’. The ideal total foot length was to be no longer than 10 cm (4 in).
The Xiaohuayuan Shoe Factory in Shanghai still occasionally takes custom tiny shoe orders to accommodate the aged population affected by foot binding. Quite recently, a 90-year-old woman in Shanghai received a new pair of shoes. The shoes were a New Year’s gift from her son and daughter-in-law.