Taiwan collector sees footbinding as forerunner to modern fashion

by AFP/Amber Wang, Jun 18, 2009 | Destinations: China / Taiwan

TAIPEI, June 4, 2009 - A Taiwanese doctor who collects artefacts of the ancient Chinese practice of footbinding has drawn criticism from feminists who say he is romanticising a tradition that suppressed women for a thousand years.

David Ko has spent the past 30 years collecting the tiny colourful shoes that Chinese women wore during the 1,000 years they were forced to have their feet broken and bent in half for the sake of fashion, beauty and sex.

He insists the practice -- which inflicted a lifetime of pain -- was a romantic fashion that continues to inspire modern trends.

"I think of footbinding as a form of fashion in ancient China, with the lavishly embroidered shoes and accessories," he told AFP, calling the results "sexy".

"The French and Italians debate about who invented high-heeled shoes but I believe they originated in China to support women with bound feet," he said.

To promote his ideas about footbinding Ko has published three books on the topic and has exhibited some of his vast collection in Taiwan, China, Canada and at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Perhaps not surprisingly he has also drawn criticism from some women who regard his fascination as something of a sick fetish, and see the binding of girls' feet as little less than torture and the perhaps the most extreme example of a fashion fad.

"I agree that footbinding should be preserved like any piece of history but it's flimsy to promote it as a beauty and fashion concept in our time," said Wang Ping, secretary-general of Taiwan's Gender/Sexuality Rights Association.

"Footbinding limited women's movements to satisfy men's desires in a patriarchal society when women didn't have an equal status.

"This notion of beauty was based on suppression," she said.

The practice, which deformed women's feet into a shape known as a "three-inch lotus," endured until early last century, when the imperial era ended and China became a republic.

It was only completely eradicated after the civil war victory of the communists in 1949, yet even today, elderly women in remote areas of the country such as southwestern Yunnan province can still be seen tottering painfully on bound feet.

Ko has 5,000 pairs of the tiny shoes worn by women with bound feet. Many of them are delicately embroidered as they were meant to attract attention to what was the main female erogenous zone -- and the smaller a women's feet, the more beautiful, and marriageable, she was considered.

He also has around 10,000 accessories, including stockings, buckles, cases, drawings and shoe-shaped wine glasses, all carefully stored in his private hospital in Taipei county.

For his books he interviewed 300 elderly women who had their feet bound as children, and describes the practice as a "cultural legacy" and an inspiration for modern fashion.

Ko said that contrary to the generally negative view of footbinding among scholars and historians, he wants it to be seen more positively, as an important aspect of China's cultural heritage.

He backs his claim that the three-inch shoes are the prototype of latter-day high heels by pointing to the tiny platforms sewn to the heels of many pairs in his collection.

"I still remember when I first saw a woman with bound feet when I was six years old, I was fascinated by how small her feet were," said the 54-year-old surgeon.

That fascination eventually inspired him to create what must be one of the most extensive collections of "lotus" paraphernalia and become one of the foremost experts on the subject.

"I would probably have become a historian if it weren't for financial and family reasons," said Ko, who was raised in a family of doctors.

Theories on the origin of footbinding vary, but it is generally believed that small feet became fashionable around the 10th century, after an emperor admired the tiny feet of a dancer who performed for him with colourful ribbons tied around her ankles.

Over the years, footbinding became a symbol of beauty, grace and class, and as the practice became universal, writers and poets eulogised the "golden lotus," and broken and bound feet became the symbol of female sexuality.

Eventually, bound feet became so normal that without them a woman could not marry. They were never shown to any male except a husband or lover.

Usually a girl was subject to the painful ritual from early childhood when her feet were literally bent in half -- often by her mother or another female relative.

They were then wrapped in long strips of cloth -- which themselves became fetishised -- ensuring a life of agony and high maintenance. Because the rotting flesh stank, the feet were powdered to mask the smell.

Yet so erotic were the feet considered that men were known to eat crushed almonds and even sip wine from between the deformed toes, and the sight of the bindings was said to be enough to stir libidinous passions.

"The richer a woman was the smaller her feet were bound, and for some matchmakers their first question was about the size of the feet of prospective brides," Ko said.

While footbinding forced women to walk in an unnatural way, tottering from side to side as they struggled to maintain balance, Ko said he believes it made them more attractive and sexy.

Indeed, he compares lotus feet to the tightly-laced corsets popular in Western Europe during the 18th century -- despite the fact that Western women chose as adults to wear the corsets, whereas Chinese women had their feet mutilated as children.

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