My first encounter with this practice was when I discovered at 6 years of age that my maternal grandmother’s feet were smaller than mine as I kept out-running her after some mischievous pranks at her expense; they were 4.5” in length. Foot binding, also known as “lotus feet,” was the custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth. The practice possibly originated among upper-class court dancers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in Imperial China (10th or 11th century), then spread in the Song dynasty and eventually became common among all but the lowest of classes. Foot binding became popular as a mean of displaying status (women from wealthy families, who did not need their feet to work, could afford to have them bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture.
The Manchu Emperor Kangxi tried to ban footbinding in 1664 but failed. In the 1800s, Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out, partly from changing social conditions and partly as a result of anti-foot binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, and a few elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities related to their bound feet.