The Chinese brothels, almost without exception, were staffed by girls with bound feet–the ideal being less than three inches long. These were objects of extraordinary sexual excitement, and enjoyed a central role in any noisy evening. Although foot fetishes are common to many cultures (the Turk and Mongol women of Siberia, for example, go bare-breasted on hot days but never show their bare feet to anyone but their husbands), in China it was institutionalized. As a nineteenth-century French scholar explained:
My attention has been drawn…by a large number of pornographic engravings, of which the Chinese are very fond. In all these lascivious scenes we see the male voluptuously fondling the woman’s foot. When a Celestial [Chinese immigrant to the West] takes into his hands 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 excquisite, how sweet, how exciting it is!” The contact of the genital organ with the little foot produces in the male an indescribable degree of voluptuous feeling, and women skilled in love know that to arouse the ardor of their lovers a better method than all Chinese aphrodisiacs is to take the penis between their feet. It is not rare to find Chinese Christians accusing themselves at confession of having had “evil thoughts on looking at a woman’s foot.”
The practice of footbinding began in the tenth century, made fashionable by palace dancers. There are no illustrations of Chinese with bound feet that date earlier. From court dancers, the fashion spread through the aristocracy, and eventually was imitated by the peasants. One purpose for the custom was to restrain women; Confucians barely tolerated females, and by crippling their feet it was certain that they could not stray far from their well-guarded quarters, or run from beatings. When the custom was occasionally condemned, it was not because of the pain and suffering it caused but because it aroused lewd behavior.
Bound feet demonstrated the lengths to which a woman would go to make her daughter a desirable sexual object. Footbinding usually began at age four. A ten-foot-long, two-inch bandage was wrapped around the toes to force them in against the sole. Each day the bandage was tightened until the foot was folded under with only the big toe sticking out, a shape called the “Golden Lotus” because it resembled a lotus pod with the petals removed. Flesh rotted and fell off, sometimes a toe or two, and the foot oozed pus, until the process of deformation was complete after two years, at which point the feet were practically dead.
Swaddled in exquisitely decorated silk boots, the feet were carefully hidden. It was commonplace for young rogues to go to great lengths to steal a maiden’s tiny silk shoes, masturbate into them, and then return them, to her intense embarrassment and humiliation.
Thus hobbled, a girl grew up walking in a mincing step, not unlike a ballet dancer en pointe. This caused her limbs to remain undeveloped and spindly. By contrast, the girl’s buttocks and “jade gate” were popularly believed to develop to such a degree that she could more tightly grip her lover’s “jade spear”. The Chinese intellectual Ku Hung-ming even argued that “the smaller the woman’s foot, the more wondrous become the folds of her vagina.” Chinese men cared little about breasts, but had visions of fondling and sucking deformed feet, with the result that the whorehouses of Shanghai each night saw thousands of performances of this extraordinary spectacle.
The prostitutes were very young, twelve to fourteen, kidnapped or sold into slavery by destitute parents. They dressed in loose silk trousers and jackets with high wing collars up to their cheekbones. Among their most popular games was Raft. A girl would surrender her tiny, embroidered shoes, which would be passed around the table for fondling and perusal of all males present. A wineglass was put in one shoe and the other shoe was placed in a large bowl. The girl then hobbled around the table on her ruined feet and held the bowl at arm’s length from each man. The patrons picked up lotus seeds from a bamboo box, and tried to toss them into the shoe within the bowl–the so-called Raft–following certain prescribed rules. After each guest had taken five turns, the girl who had donated the shoes would prescribe penalties, which ranged from downing one drink to five drinks, never more, to prevent them from becoming too drunk. Drinks were taken from the wineglass placed inside the other shoe, allowing the drinker to inhale the delicious fragrance of the perfumed foot.
At any point in the evening when so moved, one guest or another would go off with a girl. In a private chamber, it was customary to linger over the girl’s feet, stroking, sniffing, and licking them, and even dipping them in tea before drinking it. A favorite delight was to eat almonds from between crushed toes. When mounting passion could be contained no longer, the gasping customer would at last drive his jade spear into her jade gate and, raising her tiny feet to his shoulders, insert her Gold Lotus entirely into his mouth and suck noisily till the moment of “Clouds and Rain”.
Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985), p. 158-160
[My note: Chinese footbinding has been an irresistible subject to me for some time, for a number of reasons. To my mind, it’s one of the three great compromisers of Chinese cultural history (3. simplified characters, 2. footbinding, 1. the 20th Century). I am also of the mind that Western high heels, at least those for daily or business use, are a form of foot torture whose underlying cultural purpose must be something similar to that which existed for footbinding, and so it seems odd and surprising to me that they continue to persist. (Personally, I don’t find them more attractive than flat shoes, and often less.) Third, I think footbinding might just be the worst invention any human culture has ever come up with to subject its women to (not that that’s my call to make), even more so because it wasn’t even just a case of being secretly condoned like so much violence against women over the ages, but it was actively promoted. Finally, considering how desirable Chinese men seem to have found bound feet, and for nearly a thousand years, it is a striking illustration of how culturally mutable sexual desire is. I don’t have any judgment for people with foot fetishes, but I suspect most heterosexual men in the world, even those who get off on feet, would recoil in horror and disgust at a mangled bound foot. That men could be culturally programmed to find them irresistible is amazing to me, and an essential data point in our attempt to parse the roles of biological evolution and culture in our sexual desires.
I’ve heard this book called “sensationalistic”, but I’m sure this passage is at least 80% true, probably 100% true if not as common as the author would have us believe in some parts.]