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Image: Library of Congress (LOC)

A high caste lady’s dainty ‘lily feet’ – as they really were – in China

”When a Celestial takes into his hand a woman’s foot, especially if it is very small, the effect upon him is precisely the same as is provoked in a European by a young and firm bosom. All the Celestials whom I have interrogated on this point have replied unanimously: “Oh, a little foot! You Europeans cannot understand how exquisite, how sweet, how exciting it is!” ~Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty

Women have done many things for beauty throughout the course of history – from indifferently using arsenic or lead-based cosmetics, to ear and other body piercings, to yet more extreme forms of body modification. One of the most agonizingly painful of such practices is the Chinese custom of foot binding, where the feet of women – typically young girls – were broken and bound until they were able to fit inside a tiny shoe.


Image: C.H. Graves.

The so-called ‘lily feet’ (right) contrasted with the natural feet of Chinese women in Canton (now Guangzhou), China

Cultural and Sexual Impact

For around a thousand years in China, tiny bound feet were considered highly erotic, and the resulting ‘lotus gait’ – caused by the women needing to walk on their heels in a unsteady, ‘mincing’ manner – was not only arousing for men but thought to make the sexual anatomy “more voluptuous and sensitive”. During the Qing Dynasty, love manuals apparently detailed 48 different ways of fondling a woman’s bound feet.

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Image: Underwood and Underwood

Showing the deformation: The shoe was worn on the great toe only

However, even while in bed – and even if otherwise totally naked – women wore special slippers to conceal their deformed extremities. The attraction seems to have lain in what was hidden from view (a notion that also applied more broadly to the women themselves). A famous quote by Feng Xun encapsulated the thinking: “If you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever.”

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