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Lotus Shoes: The Cruel Aphrodisiac of Ancient China

Chinese lotus shoes have in large part determined the Chinese sexual perception for nearly a thousand years (c.960-1911). The female foot bound up to be as small as possible, with the pointed shape of an unopened lotus flower.

Crowning Point

The tiny feet of a woman were considered to be the most intimate part of the body, the ultimate symbol of femininity and the crowning point of sexual appeal.

Vulva in Detail

Erotic paintings (Fig.1) show completely naked women, with the vulva pictured in detail, but an image of a bare, bound foot was strictly prohibited. Only in unique cases has an artist attempted to go as far to show a woman unwinding the bandages on her foot.

chinese lotus shoes

Fig.1. ‘Nude girl playing with herself using a dildo attached to her ankle. She is observed by a man standing behind a screen‘ (c.1860) by an unknown highly-gifted artist (Sold)

Aphrodisiac

In poetry the golden lotus is passionately defined: the smaller the foot, the greater the woman’s charm. Chinese men became euphoric at the sight of the little ‘lotus shoes’, with which a whole set of wicked games could be played. As astounding as it may seem today, at the time the bound foot was the most exciting aphrodisiac for the Chinese man.

Origin Chinese Lotus Shoes

It is difficult to trace back the exact origin of the practice of binding feet (Chan zu). One of the most convincing stories tells that the practice dates back to the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1279), when Prince Li Yu reigned over one of the Ten Kingdoms in Southern China.

lotus shoes

Fig.2. ‘The girls of a brothel with their younger ‘sister’, late 19th century

Favorite Concubine

Li’s favorite concubine, Yaoniang, or ‘the girl with the distant look’, gave a mesmerizing dance performance in the chalice of a man-sized golden lotus inlaid with pearls. She had her feet bound with silk, so that they resembled ‘waxing moons’. During the dance she whirled round on feet shaped into points, so that she seemed to be floating.

Deep Impression

This refined spectacle made such a deep impression on the prince and the audience that other ladies started to mimic her and bound their feet in a similar fashion. In this way the fashion spread throughout the court.

pair of original Chinese lotus shoes in the golden lilies style

Fig.3. ‘Pair of original Chinese lotus shoes in the golden lilies style‘ (c.1870)   (Euro 685,-)

pair of original Chinese lotus shoes in the golden lilies style

Fig.4. ‘Bottom of the shoe

The Ideal of the Lotus Foot

All in all, it’s rather surprising that the ideal of the lotus foot should have originated from a dance culture, since with bound feet it is hardly possible to walk in a normal way, let alone dance. Yet there is a clear analogy with the pointe in Western ballet.

Goddess of the Small Feet

The binding of the feet entailed a whole ritual. When a girl of the well-to-do classes was at the age of five, and it was the 24th day of the eighth month (the birthday of the ‘Goddess of the Small Feet’), the mother of the girl would place two decorative shoes embroidered by her as an offering on the altar of Guanyin.

Footbinder’s Chair

The procedure was often executed by a senior woman who specialized in the binding of feet, but it could also be the mother of the girl, or sometimes her future mother-in-law. A special footbinder’s chair was used for this (see Fig.5).

lotus shoes

Fig.5. ‘Red lacquer and gilt wooden footbinder’s chair with three lotus shoes on it‘, 19th century. H. chair 54,2 cm (21 1/3″)

Big Toe

First the feet were soaked in warm water and massaged. Then the four small toes were bent under the sole of the foot and wrapped round with strips of cotton. The big toe was left free and was slightly bent upwards for balance. This was the first stage of binding, which was called the ‘light form’.

Figure of Eight

Next the heel was pushed in the direction of the bent small toes, so that these, together with the bones of the instep, were pushed out of their normal position. For this the bandages were wrapped round the foot as tightly as possible in a figure of eight.

Most Painful

Sometimes the material was soaked in hot water before use, in order that it would shrink as it dried and would squeeze the foot together even more. After this the newly made shoes would be put on, and the most painful part of the procedure would begin because the girl had to take her first steps on her newly bound feet.

Rare pair of leather lotus shoes

Fig.6. ‘Rare pair of  western-style leather lotus shoes  (c.1859-1912)’  (Euro 375,-)

Chinese lotus shoes

Fig.7. ‘Front

Aesthetic Norms

After that the bandages would have to be changed almost every day and the skin rubbed with alum to toughen it. Gradually the feet would be bound less often, but ever more tightly, so that every time smaller shoes were needed. In this way a groove was formed between the upturned sole and the heel, in accordance with the aesthetic norms.

Delicate Stem

It took about two years before the foot finally acquired the ideal shape of a pointed lotus bud. The girl could by then only move with difficulty, but in poetry her walk was described as ‘the elegant sway of a lily on her delicate stem.’

lotus shoes: Embroidered silk-shoes with flowers

Fig.8. ‘Embroidered silk-shoes with flowers (6″ inches)‘  These lotus shoes are also depicted in ‘Concubines and Courtesans‘ (Pl.17 – p.25)  (Euro 550,-)

Banquets

Sometimes banquets were organized in adoration of the bound foot, where guests would drink wine from the small shoes of the courtesans present. This was called gan jinlian bei, ‘drinking a toast with a Golden Lotus beaker.’

Birthday

The various colors and shapes of the shoes were partly determined by the status of the woman and local fashion. Colors were also attuned to the seasons and special occasions, such as a birthday or an official feast day.

Wedding Shoes

Shoes with light, bright colors were mainly worn by adolescent girls, while prostitutes generally preferred embellishing themselves in vivid color combinations. Softer colors were for middle-age women, while dark colors and black were worn by older ladies. Wedding shoes and sleeping shoes were mostly red, while mourning shoes were white.

chinese lotus shoes

Fig.9. ‘Silk shoes with various embroidery including grasshopper‘ (Euro 485,-)

Ugly Face

Bound feet gave a woman a certain prestige: it was an indication of wealth. Since her husband could afford a wife who was almost entirely condemned to a chair, this person certainly had to be successful. Furthermore, it made the woman sexually attractive and eligible for marriage. It would be preferable for a woman to have an ugly face or a bad figure than big feet. Women with big feet were after all, destined for the very poorest men.

chinese lotus shoes

Fig.10. ‘Lotus shoes with embroidery of tigers near a tree‘ (Euro 265,-)

Tortoises

Courtesans often had the smallest feet on which they could hardly walk, if at all, and which were there most important trademark. At the end of the nineteenth century courtesans were carried on the backs of male assistants. For that reason, the latter were also called wugui (‘tortoises’). They came from the lowest classes. The word had a sexual connotation because of the resemblance between the head of the tortoise and the head of a swollen penis.

chinese lotus shoes

Fig.11. ‘Brown-colored pointed lotus shoes with colorful embroidery‘ (Euro 285,-)

Excitement

It was known that courtesans and prostitutes would never take off their bandages in the presence of a client, because this could cause too much excitement. They even kept their shoes on when they took off all their other clothes.

Male Actors

From the late Qing period (1644-1912) a few male actors adopted the light-form of foot-binding (Fig.12). They played female roles, because it was forbidden for theater companies to have mixed sexes. Yet, regularly wooden stilts were used, the ends of which were inserted into lotus shoes.

lotus shoes

Fig.12. ‘Male actor playing the principal female role, Yunnanfu (Kunming), 1902‘ Photograph by Auguste François (1857-1935)

chinese lotus shoes

Fig.13. ‘High-heeled pair with flower motifs‘ (Euro 265,-)

Too Strong

Foot-binding was not embraced in the whole of China. There were communities such as the Manchus, a nomad tribe from Manchuria in the north, who tried to forbid the ritual when they took over government shortly after 1644. But the tradition was simply too strong.

Tanka

Other sections of the population in China that did not approve of the fashion of the Han Chinese were the Hakka tribe in the south, the hill tribes in Northern China and the Tanka. The latter lived on boats in the coastal waters of the provinces of Kwangtung (Guangdong) and Fukien (Fujian). In general the Tanka depended for their living on the transport of goods. Their wives often worked as prostitutes.

Bloodiest

The rebels of the Taiping revolt (1851-1864), one of the bloodiest in the history of China, were strongly against the binding of women’s feet. But also they failed to ban the tradition in the regions they had conquered in central and Southern China.

Pair of Chinese Ritual silk lotus shoes for the altar of Guanyin

Fig.14. ‘Ritual silk shoes for the altar of Guanyin‘  (Euro 385,-)

Great Aversion

It is known that the Chinese Christians had a great aversion to foot-binding. They also tried to discourage the ritual, partly under the influence of Western missionaries, but again it was to no avail. It was not until after the Chinese revolution in 1911 that a legal ban on the binding of women’s feet was successful.

Pain and Anguish

From that moment on women were obligated to remove the bandages and give up wearing lotus shoes. This again caused much pain and anguish, because their distorted feet no longer had any support and for the first time started to grow again. Still it took decades before the method of foot-binding eventually died out in the conservative part of China.

 

In the following short video the well-known Chinese erotic art collector Ferry Bertholet refers shortly to the taboo of showing the naked foot…

The above lotus shoes were previously part of the acclaimed collection of Ferry Bertholet. Original lotus shoes from the 19th century of this quality are rarely seen on the market.

All pieces are available (when the price is mentioned!). If interested, you can click HERE for inquiries…..!!

Click HERE for more Chinese erotic art….!!

Source: ‘Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art by F.M. Bertholet

What are your thoughts about this striking fashion that dominated China for such a long time? Let us know in the comment box below…!!

About the author
Peter

By

Peter

on 1 November 2019

I have actually seen an elderly lady with her daughter They had a restaurant.The lady was unable to walk...This bad treatment,making people an invalid ,is banned,but 30 years ago she had to live with it.,and she was about 70 years old.

Marijn

By

Marijn

on 1 November 2019

Thank you for your story Peter. Indeed, a persistent ritual that lasts for almost 1000 years has not simply disappeared.

Joao Barroso

By

Joao Barroso

on 1 November 2019

Marijn, Bertholet is absolutely right! The Chinese authorities would confiscate his collection, but then again, no risk because they would not allow it to be exhibited there. When I left China a few years back, after almost 4 decades there, as usual, my belongings were scanned and inspected for "illegal" objects, art and artifacts. My shunga books, Chinese Yun Yu and Chun Hua anything were confiscated. None had been bought in China, all had been bought abroad and either shipped there or I carried them with me, etc., but it did not matter. All were considered "illegal" and they took them. The hypocrisy is staggering, because "sex" is common currency in China. Officials and those in power have always used it and continue to, in their deals. I know from friends who deal with Chinese "party bosses" how young girls are offered to even foreigners to sweeten, encourage or close a deal! And of course, prostitution is common, college girls use it to get money to feed their fashion cravings, and of course, marrying a foreign diplomat or hooking a sugar daddy is still very much on many girls agendas. Married people, both sexes, also freely engage in extra marital sex, and public park and college dormitory student sex is not a rarity either! I believe the Chinese Museum of Sex has also been closed (but not sure. It was moved around a few times at least, but I think it's no longer open to the public.) To write a book on Modern China, Communism and Sex would be a very interesting project! As for erotica not being available in China, well, real pieces, that are dated prior to 1911 are difficult to find, but the industry of fake old erotica is doing well, thank you!, and thriving! Auction houses and online platforms (from eBay to CATAWIKI, LiveAuctioneers, INvaluable, and then some,) are inundated by fake Chun Hua Gong albums and the odd scroll, horrible pieces of "Shunga" ---- it's irritating how the term is now used to refer to anything and everything that depicts "sex"! ---- mixing both elements from Japanese Shunga pieces, and old Chinese Chun Hua imagery, copied ad nauseum by unskilled artisans seeking to make a buck; fake Hong Shan (or Hongshan) jade, stone, etc., pieces are available on eBay, as are ceramics, porcelain, etc. Once and a while an accident occurs and a piece is created by one of these serial-chunga-killers that shows some artistic balance and is aesthetically pleasing, but not often. The Chun Hua Gong leporello-like albums are the worst of all fakes! And even in mainland China books are available and the Chinese do stream porn even if the government censoring machine tries to stop it! More than 30 years ago, I was living in a residential area for foreigners and suddenly, on TV, in the middle of the day, a porn movie stated streaming! The Chinese guys who handled the TV satellite room were clearly enjoying their afternoon-porn and messed up, forgetting to flip the broadcast button to the off position! This was the time kids came home from school and started flipping through the TV channels. Pedophiles also abound in China, by the way. And copies of the Jin Ping Mei and Rou Pu Tuan, for example, and to mention only two of the most read erotica Chinese classics, can be found in mainland China as well. So, the Chinese obsession with censoring porn and smut and anything sexual is plain hypocritical and might even be a result of their much bigger obsession with SEX! Make it art, or medical, however, and a lot can be found even in their mega bookstores. Sex, is a sweet part of life, and humans have been depicting it and showing it since for ever, just for the pleasure of the eyes, instruction or as part of fertility rituals, thank Heaven (and Earth!) or none of us would be around!

Joao Barroso

By

Joao Barroso

on 1 November 2019

(Comments cannot be edited it seems; I should have proofread it before hitting the "Place comment" button. Oh well. :)

Marijn

By

Marijn

on 1 November 2019

Thanks a lot for your extensive reaction and insights Joao! It's nice to hear the experiences from someone who has lived in this enigmatic country and reveal its hypocrisy. Your suggestion of writing a book on Communism and Sex could have as sub-title How Mao's Cultural Revolution Destroyed Their Own Sensual Heritage. Haha...'serial shunga-killers', brilliant! You are absolutely right about the wave of inferior and fake Chinese erotica produced after 1911. Pieces like the above lotus shoes and other pre-1911 Chinese erotica are a rare find! The kind of hypocrisy you mention above (which is universal) is one of the main reasons for us to start this blog. I think people want to enjoy sensual expressions without nuisance and censorship jammed down their throats by people with repressed shame.

JB

By

JB

on 1 November 2019

You wrote, "The kind of hypocrisy you mention above (which is universal)" and yes, I totally agree. It does not matter if the "morality" backdrop of censorship is social, political or religious, the fact is, it always has one objective: control people by imposing on them what the group or individuals exercising the censorship believe (or want others to believe they believe!) is right. Look at what's in the news today, "Man who helped draft laws ordering adulterers to be flogged is publicly whipped after he is caught having an affair with a married woman in Indonesia" / https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7635007/Man-helped-draft-laws-ordering-adulterers-flogged-flogged-adultery-Indonesia.html Just another case of the same: hypocrisy! People with mental issues and cursed and constricted by the straitjackets of their own taboos and fears should not be trying to regulate other people's lives. A whole library could (should?) be written on all these subjects. Thank heaven for artists and those who can enjoy sex for what it is: an essential part of life, pleasurable, enjoyable, and at times even laughable! Your website is somehow one more oasis in the middle of the desert. (When I have time, I'll try to reproduce and send you a Shunga scroll I recently acquired; never seen anything like it before. Will be sending it to a couple of other people for feedback and to see if I can learn a bit more about it.)

Marijn

By

Marijn

on 2 November 2019

I completely agree Joao. In my experience religion (besides all other institutional powers) is the major culprit behind sexual repression and censorship throughout history. The article you refer to is a good example of this. I recently read that when people who man the controls are obsessed with sexualized content, this will trigger a process in which collective prudishness leads to the repression of sexual expression. Also, when something is forbidden it goes underground and then things get really creepy (and depraved). Anyway, this is not the end of the discussion if I can help it. I am looking forward checking out your recently acquired shunga scroll.

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