Chinese Foot Binding Museum

Learn about the disturbing but fascinating culture of foot binding at this quirky little museum near Shanghai, China.

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#30daysofposts – During the month of June I’ll be reaching into the furthest depths of my brain to bring you useful and fascinating travel knowledge. If you’d prefer to read an ad-free version, head to (USD) Patreon or (AUD) Pozible.

*The writer paid their own way for the entire trip. Check out my shop, for stunning photographs, ready to print and frame.

Chinese culture has numerous fascinating elements, but if ever women needed a reason to hate men, then foot binding is it. Tucked away amongst the cobblestone laneways of Wuzhen Water Town (two hours from Shanghai) is the Chinese Foot Binding Museum. 

Like Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums with their shrunken heads, foot binding seems mythological; too crazy to be true. However it existed in popular Chinese culture for over a thousand years and the museum offers a rare and fascinating insight into the horrendous torture and crippling injuries women were subjected to, in order to please men and be deemed beautiful.

Tiny shoes at the foot binding museum.

The term ‘Golden Lotus’ was used as an almost glorified euphemism to describe bound feet, giving them an elitist status. For the uninitiated, the object of foot binding was to craft women’s feet into a small triangular shape. The tinier and pointier, the better. The ultimate goal was a three inch foot, which is roughly half the length of the average cell phone, or the length of your thumb.

Whilst it’s origins can’t be traced to a single source, the trend arose at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty. It started amongst the royal families and it’s thought a young dancer who naturally had small feet, bound them, leaving her heel open for grip. This tiny glimpse of skin highly aroused the emperor, and the trend grew from there. 

foot binding museum, Wuzhen, foot binding, china, near Shanghai, culture, image by Jade Jackson
Examples at the foot binding museum, Wuzhen (near Shanghai), China.

Obviously women who’s feet were bound were unable to work in menial farming jobs so it became a status symbol of the rich, before becoming a display of sexuality in brothels. 

Eventually it was expected, that all women would bind their feet and it was frowned upon and a woman would be shunned if she had normal feet. Perfectly bound feet became so prized they would often replace a traditional marriage dowry. 

Bound feet wasn’t something decided on a whim. It began when a girl was between five to eight years old and took approximately three years for the feet to manifest and to be moulded; much like a bonsai tree. 

All up there was five stages of binding:

  • Binding where the feet were wrapped in cotton
  • Tightening where the cotton was tightened, bringing the toes closer together, beneath the foot
foot binding museum, Wuzhen, Shanghai, china, foot binding, culture, image by jade Jackson
Foot binding representation at the museum. Image by Jade Jackson
  • Sharpening which helped create the ultimate goal of a pointy foot
  • Slimming which helped create a narrow foot
  • Bending ensuring the arch was high and smooth

Essentially the bones were broken, so they could be shaped. Eventually the toes would become permanently set in the crushed and smaller position resulting in the tiny pointed shape most longed for.

Whilst initially the concept was pushed by men, curiously it ended up as a display of sexuality amongst women. Bound feet became a strong display of gender and identity and a source of pride.

Shoes were hand-made and represented different periods of a woman’s life. Careful thought and planning was put into every pair. Silk was used to showcase wealth whilst leather was used for outdoor and cotton was used for indoor shoes. Colours were important as they told a story about the wearer and her family. They could even be utilised to display marital status and specific colours were reserved for special occasions. Red was used solely for weddings, white for death and funerals. 

Stitched-on designs like flowers, butterflies and birds were used to portray family life, interests and like today, different shoe designs were worn outdoors, vs indoors. Heels were easily replaceable and could be taken off so a shoe could be worn indoors. A woman would own several pairs of shoes and they would be amongst her prized possessions.

foot binding museum Wuzhen,
Elaborate shoes at the foot binding museum, Wuzhen, China.

Bed shoes were softer and open, revealing more skin especially on the top of the foot. As exquisitely formed bound feet were a portrayal of sexuality and femininity, foreplay would constitute a woman rubbing her bare heel along a mans leg. Feet that were slim, tiny, pointed, arched, fragrant, soft and straight were seen as the ultimate in sexual stimulation.

Foot binding crippled women, making it difficult to walk at all. Eventually foot binding was banned, and deemed illegal, although it took several attempts before the practice was abandoned entirely. It’s thought that western influence of un-bound and normal feet made bound feet disappear for good. 

Foot binding museum Wuzhen, China, image by jade Jackson
Shoes came in all sorts of colours and designs at the foot binding museum, Wuzhen, China.

It’s easy to call the practice barbaric, but as female genital mutilation and child marriages are still practised today, including in Australia and America, we can hardly criticise. Regardless it’s still a fascinating exhibition and set amongst a beautiful historical village easily accessible from Shanghai. 

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Wuzhen is an ancient water town, roughly 2 hours by bus from Shanghai. It features rickety wooden houses flanking fish filled canals. Most buildings double as shops representing ancient customs including hand-made paper umbrellas, dumplings, clothing and artwork. I bought a leather wallet from a leather shop in Wuzhen that three years later with daily use, is still crisp and barely shows any signs of wear.

Not only is Wuzhen insta-worthy, the lack of cars makes it a tranquil escape from the bustle of Shanghai. Allow the better part of a day to explore it all and there’s also an opera house with regular shows. You’ll need to pay an entrance fee of RMB120 (AUD25, USD18, GBP14) plus a boat ride is the same price again. Upon entry, there’s an easy cobblestone path to follow that takes in all the key sights of Wuzhen. It may seem a tad kitschy and it’s definitely touristy but it’s also picturesque and the foot binding museum is fascinating. There’s regular buses from Shanghai  South Railway Station Bus Terminal to Wuzhen and from the bus terminal in Wuzhen a local bus will take you to the water town.

I stayed at the Pullman Shanghai South (awesome deal it was AUD80/night) which is a short walk from the Shanghai South Railway Station. 

Travel always, don’t forget to send me a postcard, cheers Jade Jackson
Send me a postcard from your travels!

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*Key statistics provided courtesy of the Foot Binding Museum

What cultural phenomenon will be banned in 1000 years that future humans will visit a museum about? Comment below!

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