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10 Bizarre Facts About Lotus Feet

by Theta O'Neal
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Beauty has been pursued for millennia, from ancient times to the glam of the modern age. Every society has styles and beauty techniques that often reflect what the average person should look like in order to be deemed beautiful. But beauty is not always easy; many even claim that pain is beauty.

Ancient China had their own definition of beauty, and it was cruel, disfiguring, and harmful to all those who underwent the procedure. Lotus feet, acquired by extreme foot-binding, was all the rage, and those who had bound feet were said to be of utmost beauty. To gain such tiny feet, however, woman and children had to undergo a crippling procedure that disfigured them for the rest of their lives.

10 No One Is Certain When The Practice Actually Began

Though foot-binding is well-known, history experts are unsure of when the practice began. The most widely accepted start is the 10th century, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. During this time, many different emperors rose and fell, but the tradition of foot-binding remained.

The origin of foot-binding also has many possibilities, but one legend has been passed down more often than others: that of the emperor and the concubine. An emperor from the period was surrounded by many concubines, but one was of particular interest, as she created a stage that looked like a lotus, upon which she performed. As she continued performing for the emperor, over time, she began to bind her feet so that they became small and always hoof-shaped.

As her tiny feet danced upon the lotus stage, the emperor became consumed with love for the beautiful concubine and deemed her his favorite. The other concubines, jealous of losing favor with the emperor, also began to bind their feet in order to make him love them with the passion with which he loved his lotus dancer.[1]

9 Lotus Feet Were For The Benefit Of Men

Lotus feet were of particular interest to men of the time. Men found lotus feet to be incredibly attractive on women and also believed that their tiny feet had more pleasurable effects. Foot-binding, due to its crippling effects, caused women to walk in shorter, more controlled steps. It was believed that this difficulty walking caused the women to use more muscles in their inner thighs, hips, and pelvic regions. Men believed that lotus feet, combined with the exertion put on these muscles, caused women to have a tighter vagina and pelvic floor, thus making sex with them more pleasurable.[2]

Lotus feet were also a very popular fetish of the era. Men viewed them as the ultimate in sexual arousal. While having sex, many men would require the woman to leave her lotus shoes on her feet, creating a mystique around the tiny feet and increasing the sexuality of the encounter. Some men, incredibly infatuated with the deformed feet, even found ways to increase their arousal by performing random, sex-driven acts with them, including smelling, caressing, licking, and putting the foot in their mouth. Some of the weirder fetishes of lotus feet lovers at the time included drinking water that the feet had been washed in or and placing food items between the toes and nibbling them out.

Though lotus feet had a sexual meaning for men, they also were also a marker for a man’s wealth and status. Many times throughout China’s extensive history, people were on the brink of starvation due to many different attributes. But one could always tell which man was wealthy and better-off, based on how many lotus-footed wives he had. Because these woman could do little but stay in their homes all day, men with many lotus-footed brides could show their wealth, essentially proclaiming, “Look how rich I am! I can afford to feed all these useless mouths!”

Lotus feet also gave men near-complete control over the women put through this tortuous procedure. Because foot-binding kept women from moving around easily, men prized women with tiny feet because they knew they could keep them around without any chance of them straying. Because they could only walk a few miles per day, they were destined to a life of servitude within the man’s house, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. It also assured men that their tiny-footed wives were not adulterous; because they couldn’t walk, they were to be his and only his. Lotus feet were essentially a way for a man to keep a woman as a possession for his benefit, sexually and economically.

8 Foot-Binding Started At A Young Age

Photo credit:

Pictures almost always show adult or elderly women with lotus feet. Tragically, though, foot-binding was done to very small girls, with little or no input from the young children. The procedure typically began between the ages of four and nine.[3] Though the children undergoing the procedure were very young, foot-binding and finally achieving lotus feet were seen as a rite of passage. Along with puberty, menstruation, and childbirth, foot-binding was seen as another step in a child’s process of maturity. Because it was viewed as a bonding affair, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were all involved, with the elders ensuring the girl that this was necessary for them to be desirable and able to marry a good man. While the process was being carried out on these young girls, they were taught that small feet were a sign of marriageability and that they must be subordinate to men and increase the differences between male and female.

Foot-binding was also forced upon young girls because it was seen as a fertility marker. Binding at an early age was thought to cause blood to flow up the young girl’s legs, entering the thighs, hips, and vagina, making them better at sex and increasing their fertility. Even from an early age, young girls were forced to undergo this procedure and taught that they were inferior to men and should ultimately be seen and not heard.

7 The Procedure Was Torturous And Long

When the time arrived for the young girls to start the process of foot-binding, their entire world changed as they went from being a carefree child to one that was in a constant state of pain and agony. The process to obtain lotus feet was long, nearly two years, and required the child to be put through rounds of constant binding. To begin the process, a young girl’s feet were placed in a warm bath to help thoroughly soften the skin and then scrubbed vigorously to remove all the dead and dry skin from the area. Toenails were clipped incredibly short to prevent any nicks or cuts when the binding started, and alum was sprinkled between the toes to prevent the building of perspiration and moisture.

Next came the actual process of applying bandages for binding. Long bandages were soaked in water so that when they dried, they would shrink, binding the feet even more tightly. Whomever was binding the young child’s feet then took all four of the girl’s small toes and bent them inward toward the sole of the foot. A bandage was then tightly placed about the toes to keep them solidly secured to the bottom of the foot. The big toe was then bent up slightly, and a bandage was wrapped around it, the ankle, and the instep of the foot, creating a figure eight with the bandages. By doing this, the heel was brought forward, and over time, the arch are the foot was completely fractured. In more extreme cases, broken glass was put within the bandages to cut the foot and skin, causing parts of the skin to rot away, thus making the foot even smaller.[4]

This process was terrible, but what is even more disturbing is that the girl underwent this procedure every few days. The bandages had to be removed and then new ones applied and bound even tighter to ensure the correct bones were moving and breaking. During the brief periods of relief in between, the feet would be cleaned, dead or dry flesh would be removed, and toenails would be clipped. In some instances, in an attempt to prevent later problems with toenails, they were completely removed from the toes of the child.

6 Lotus Feet Were A Hygiene Nightmare

Photo credit: AFP

Beyond the actual pain of having feet bound, there were other medical concerns that plagued women with lotus feet. First, the toenails presented their own set of complications. In some instances, the toenails would curl under the edges of the skin, causing splits, cuts, and tears. Ingrown toenails were rampant; they would fill with pus and cause extreme pain. This excess of pus in the crushed foot would give way to a horrific smell.

In some cases, constriction of the foot became so severe that parts of the skin and foot would simply die and rot away. Some girls were even missing toes due to loss of circulation from the compression of the bandages. When the bandages were removed, the girl’s toes would simply fall to the floor.[5] In some cases, this was acceptable; less skin and fewer toes equal smaller foot.

All of these issues led to high levels of infection, including gangrene. Gangrene was rampant because of the bandages, which allowed infection to grow and fester underneath, ultimately putting the young girls in grave danger. Maybe the worst part about the hygiene of the lotus feet was that even if everything went well in youth, the girl was destined for a life of complete devotion to her feet. She would have to meticulously tend to, wash, medicate, and rebind her feet for the rest of her life. Lotus feet were a torture that lasted a lifetime.

5 Lotus Feet Negatively Affected The Entire Body

In addition to being incredibly mangled due to foot-binding, lotus feet caused other areas of the body to suffer as well. The feet themselves were prone to infection, paralysis, and muscular degeneration, causing the woman to need assistance while walking, either with a cane or the help of another person. Because women with lotus feet couldn’t move their legs regularly, their gait became skewed, and their lower leg muscles would become weaker and weaker, leading to atrophy of the legs. Because of the lower leg weakness, foot-bound women were nearly unable to squat, which was extremely important for day-to-day activities, including housework, child-rearing, and toileting.

Studies of elderly women with lotus feet also showed decreased levels of bone density, especially in the lower hip and spine. This led to the increased risk of fractures when falling. Sometimes, foot-binding was so extreme that the ball of the foot would be so compressed that it would actually begin growing into the heel of the foot. In these cases, the already precarious stance would be even more affected; women would often be unable to stand for any amount of time.

A worst-case scenario for any girl with bound feet was death. Though not entirely common, it did happen, typically because of septicemia due to infection. More often, however, rather than the woman dying, the entire foot would die, causing the woman to reek of rot, sometimes even years after the death of her bound foot.[6]

4 The Infamous Golden Lotus

All lotus feet were desirable in ancient China. But there were different levels of appeal, based on the length of the foot after a successful binding. The first level of successful binding was known as the iron lotus. An iron lotus foot would be of a length that was longer than 10 centimeters (4 in). Because length was directly related to how likely a girl was to get married, those with iron lotus feet were more likely to stay unwed because their feet were not considered desirable enough.

The next level of lotus feet was known as silver lotus. Feet with this title measured roughly 10 centimeters (4 in) in length and were more desirable than iron but still not what men sought in a woman of the time.

Women who were most prized were those who had the infamous golden lotus. Women with this title had feet that measured a mere 7.6 centimeters (3 in) long.[7] That’s roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes. Women with golden lotus feet were nearly guaranteed a marriage, as feet of this size were seen as the ultimate in sexual fantasy for men at the time. Books in ancient China even gave instructions to men on different ways to enjoy the golden lotus feet of women.

3 Lotus Feet Were A Mark Of Status

Lotus feet began their journey of appeal in the realm of the aristocracy. Beginning with the fabled emperor and his concubines, ladies of high status had their feet bound to show their position. The higher the status, the more likely one was to get married to a man of equally high prestige. Bind the woman’s foot to unmentionable grotesqueness, and she was even more desirable.

Though common among the upper echelons of Chinese royalty, lotus feet were not as frequent among the working class and the poor. For the poor, lotus feet, though desirable, made life even harder. Farmers and regular women workers found that with their tiny, disfigured lotus feet, they weren’t able to successfully manage their day-to-day work. Essentially, in an attempt to maintain an air of beauty, they hindered their economic way of life.[8]

Many poor or working-class people, however, understood how the mark of lotus feet rose one’s status among men, and in an attempt to give their daughters a better life, poor families would often bind their daughters’ feet to help them woo a husband and have a life better than what they were born into. Many times, this worked, especially for those girls whose feet had achieved the golden lotus status.

No matter their social standing in life, girls who weren’t subjected to the agony of foot-binding were often made fun of, ridiculed, and ensured that their ugly, large feet would deter men.

2 Lotus Feet Stayed In Fashion Until The Early 1900s

Photo credit: C.H. Graves

Lotus feet were in fashion for hundreds if not thousands of years in China’s long history. But as with any fad, this one finally ran its course, though it took a long time to come to an end.

Lotus feet began to go out of fashion during the Qing dynasty, when China was beginning to be colonized by Western people. The colonists viewed women with lotus feet as suffering and being tortured by the practice. Western women who had come to China took particular interest and concern for the lotus feet women, many of them opening shelters to help support those whose feet had been damaged by the process. During this time, Chinese intellectuals who had studied abroad in Western countries returned to China with disgusted stances on the act of foot-binding. By the fall of the Qing dynasty, lotus feet were losing their hold.[9]

As time went on, lotus feet were viewed with more and more disgust by the same country that had thought them so desirable for so many years. By 1949, foot-binding had become a distasteful act and was synonymous with “feudal and backward China.” By the end of the 1950s, foot-binding had been outlawed and abolished in all provinces of China.

1 Lotus Feet Ruined Lives Even After Being Outlawed

Women with lotus feet underwent a childhood surrounded by fear and pain as their feet were broken, bound, and disfigured, all to gain status and beauty. But when the practice went out of favor, the afflicted women still had a rough time adjusting to life with their little lotus feet. After the abolition of foot-binding, Chairman Mao established a regiment of inspectors who were to view women around areas of China and publicly shame any they found with lotus feet. Women were finally free of the bandages but not from being publicly tormented for a procedure that was forced upon them as children. Many times, when discovered, women’s foot-binding bandages were hung in their windows so that anyone passing by could view them and shame the woman.[10]

Sadly, lotus feet women bore even more shame as unbound feet became the norm. Natural feet were regarded as beautiful, and women were expected to proudly show their pretty unbound feet. These women could go barefoot and be seen as attractive, whereas women with lotus feet were only considered beautiful if their disfigured feet were covered with their specially made embroidered shoes. Though times have changed, and unbound feet are considered the norm, there are still elderly women in many parts of China tending their delicate lotuses.

Hi! I’m Theta! I am a full time librarian with a penchant for writing, animals, and all things obscure. I love traveling, my pets, Game of Thrones, and reading.


Read more about bizarre and harmful beauty practices on 10 Insane Beauty Treatments and 10 Dangerous Beauty Trends From The Victorian Era.

fact checked by Jamie Frater