Collector: footbinding forerunner to fashion
AFP/File - A footbinding model seen in Tucheng. A
Taiwanese doctor who collects artefacts of the ancient
by Amber Wang Amber Wang - Thu Jun 4, 1:25 am ET
Amber Wang -星期四6月4日，1:25上午东部時間
TAIPEI (AFP) - 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
"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
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
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
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
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.