In order to understand the importance of the crusading work of Alicia Bewicke Little, one has to understand what she was fighting for—or rather, what she was fighting against: the practice of foot binding in China.
The Chinese custom of foot binding was supposedly started back in the tenth century by a favored concubine of the emperor. Renowned for her beauty and dancing, it was said she bound her feet in order for them to appear daintier as she danced across a stage designed in the shape of a lotus blossom. Soon, other concubines were binding their feet in order to impress the emperor. The practice then spread throughout the royal court and into the upper classes where bound feet became a status symbol. By the mid 1700s, foot binding occurred throughout all of China and had become a requisite for a successful marriage arrangement; except among the very poor, where women had to stand long hours on their feet working in the fields alongside their husbands.
The binding process started during the winter months when a girl was between four and six years old. First the child’s feet were soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften the nails and the flesh. Once the toenails had been trimmed back as far as possible, then the elder females in the family would assist in curling the girl’s toes under and wrapping the feet tightly in cotton bandages. Next the women would press down hard on the feet with as much pressure as possible, breaking the bones of the toes and forcing them up against the soles, not stopping until the arch of each foot was broken as well. Then the feet were tightly wrapped again with additional bandages in order to keep the toes immobile.
A day or two later the bandages would be unwrapped and the feet washed, checked for infection, and soaked in a special solution to help any future rotting flesh fall off. Then the women would trim the nails again and rewrap the bandages even more tightly. The young girl would be rendered motionless for days. The unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible, bending the ball of the foot back toward the heel with the ultimate goal of the girl’s foot being reduced in length to three inches total. The pain must have been horrendous.
Why would women subject their daughters to this? Because it raised the family’s status. Many men in the past apparently felt that the unusual gait of a foot-bound woman, as she swayed slightly on her tiny deformed feet, was sensual and made the woman more desirable. Foot bound women were given tiny embroidered shoes to wear as they slowly stepped-swayed, or were carried in rickshaws.
In 1886, the story changes. Enter Alicia Bewicke, a British novelist who at the age of forty-one married Archibald Little, a highly successful merchant conducting business in China. They moved there in 1887 and established residency. Alicia studied Chinese and taught English, and began to immerse herself in the local cultural customs of the women. She soon witnessed the practice of foot binding. From her western viewpoint, she felt it was a barbaric ritual which eventually rendered women powerless and kept them totally dependent on their husbands.
At first Alicia tried to talk to the women about the health dangers of the tradition and how the women could band together, and change the culture. Then for two years Alicia traveled around China every chance she got and spoke to women about the plausible idea of stopping the custom. She soon became a formidable presence.
In 1895 she formed the Anti-Foot Binding League and enlisted the help of missionary wives who were also opposed to the agonizing practice. Alicia encouraged Chinese women to write poems about the misery of their foot binding and she asked the missionary wives help her to write and disseminate pamphlets calling for a halt to foot binding. Over the course of two years, 8,000 poems and pamphlets were handed out to the Chinese population.
It is interesting to note that certain male rulers in China had attempted to ban the practice before, but the ban was never enforced.
Alicia Little and her league forged ahead. They had their most success eventually in Shanghai where a large majority of families joined the Natural Feet Association and announced that they would no longer subject their daughters to foot binding. Little by little the tradition began to subside, although it would take the Communist Party of China in 1949 to finally outlaw the practice completely and enforce the decree nationwide.
But Alicia Little had started more than fifty years ahead of the Communist Party, and made a difference in the lives of thousands of Chinese girls.
I think of my own beautiful daughters and grand-daughters—I cannot fathom ever subjecting them to that type of torture. But what if I had lived in China hundreds of years ago and society insisted that foot binding was the only way my daughters could find suitable partners for marriage? It is not up to me to judge civilizations of the past.
And before we criticize the Chinese, remember it was western culture that invented stiletto heels.
Strong women stand tall, regardless of shoe preference.
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