Chinese Shoes of Pain

Chinese custom of binding feet

This Yorkshire World Collections object was one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

Ida Elizabeth Lyon, a grocerís daughter from Market Weighton, left East Yorkshire bound for China in 1888, aged only 22. She didnít return until 1921, bringing with her an incredible collection of Chinese objects. This pair of shoes is one of several brought back to England by Ida. The beauty of the shoes hides the pain the wearer had to put up with to be able to wear them.

The practice of breaking and binding the foot began over 1,000 years ago in the royal palaces of China. Girls feet were bound at an early age, to try and obtain the ideal 'lotus' shape, sometimes making them an incredible three inches (7.5 cm) long! The feet were bound to imitate the shape of a lotus flower. As women with tiny bound feet could not work, this practice became a sign of wealth and status, and became an important part of Chinese society. The practice was made illegal in 1911, although it wasnít until the Peopleís Republic of China was formed in 1949 that foot binding finally ended. These shoes date from between 1890 and 1911.

Another resource on My Learning Chinese Bound Foot Shoes has more detail about this practice.

An adventurous young woman called Louisa Pesel was travelling about the same time as Ida Lyon, exploring and discovering textiles in Egypt.

The Sande Society Rattle resource on My Learning is associated with a different form of body mutilation.

Discussion Ideas:

  • Breaking and binding feet seems an incredibly cruel and painful thing to do to appear 'wealthy'. In contrast in India today it is known for beggars to mutilate themselves to get more sympathy when begging - from one extreme to the other!
    Talk about the reasons why these two groups of people might go to such extremes to a) appear wealthy and b) to beg to survive.
  • Do you know any other examples of 'body decoration' that are carried out 'to show off' or for beauty? What about tattoos, piercings, scarification or plastic surgery - where do all these fit into the scale of changing the look of your body and how are they explained?
  • The People's Republic of China began in 1949 and was a communist state. Although it was a good thing that it made foot binding illegal, the political system of communism has good and bad points. Find out about communism and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of it. Use the links below to consider your view point.

Document icon Learning article provided by: East Riding Museums | 
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