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Chinese Foot Binding: Interesting Stories from NPR

X-ray of bound feet, China

Image via Wikipedia

I’m often amazed by the degree to which we humans will put fashion before function when it comes to both our feet and our footwear.

A few days ago my friend Mark Cucuzzella forwarded me a link to an NPR article about the film adaptation of the book “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” In the article, film director Wayne Wang discusses the practice of foot binding, a horrific and disfiguring practice in which young girls’ feet were intentionally broken and bandaged in order to make them appear as small as possible (check out the x-ray above!). Wang makes an interesting comparison between foot binding and the modern wear of high-heeled shoes:

“Wang says footbinding was meant to establish and display social status. He elaborates that women with bound feet did not have to work in the fields, got carried around by other people, and were considered attractive by men.

Wang says that wearing high heels today is similar to having bound feet in the past because feet are packed into a tight shoe, and women who could afford heels are probably driven in cars by others.”

From there I found an associated NPR story specifically focused on the practice of Chinese foot binding –  here is an excerpt, and you can listen to the audio of the full story below:

“Wang Lifen was just 7 years old when her mother started binding her feet: breaking her toes and binding them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages. After her mother died, Wang carried on, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her toes and heel ever closer. Now 79, Wang no longer remembers the pain.”

“Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken. Young bones are soft, and break more easily,” she says.


Although foot binding clearly takes things to an extreme – modifying the foot to fit a tiny shoe – our practice of cramming our feet into shoes with narrow, tapered toeboxes clearly has the potential to cause deformity as well. Take a look at this X-Ray from Edward Munson’s 1912 book “The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe“:

Munson X-Ray

Makes you wonder how many of us who have spend our lives shod have truly natural foot anatomy and function – do your big and little toes angle inward toward their neighbors? Something to think about…

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a biology teacher, track/soccer coach, and dad (x3) with a passion for running, soccer, and science. If you'd like to learn a little bit more about who I am and what I do, click here, or visit


  1. briderdt says:

    All I’ve got to say is “Ouch!”

  2. Richard Ayotte says:

    My feet have absolutely been deformed by shoes and skates (I played alot of hockey when I was young) but my feet have slowly been looking more normal over the last couple of years with all the barefoot running. I pull my toes apart every chance that I get now and wear shoes only when I must.

  3. James Harris says:

    Picked up a pair of VFF’s last week, and have been hesitant to put on any of my other pairs of shoes since.  Now I know why.  The thought of cramming my feet into shoes that deform my feet like that scares the crap out of me.

  4. Joel Aaron says:

    Then there are disciplines which actually require toe-cramming to push the technical envelope – such as pointe-work in ballet, or steep routes in rock climbing.  When I climb I take my shoes off every chance I get (breaks, belaying, etc.).  But when I’m on the rock, I’m glad my feet are crammed into a somewhat tight shoe. You can do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, and push your limits.

    But this is a different issue.  The post was about fashion, not function.

  5. RunTraveler says:

    Oh, thanks for the link! I’m an NPR junkie, but missed that story.

    Along similar lines – I recently read a book titled “Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them” that described foot binding in detail, then also drew parallels with modern footwear and the medical problems caused. As a runner, foot binding is about the worst torture I can imagine — but I also gave up my high heels years ago.Book review link: http://i-run-like-a-girl.blogs

  6. RunningPT12 says:

    Back when I was practicing in Florida, our practice used to care for a local ballet company – talk about weird injuries! Ballerinas with toasted toes and subluxed cuboids!

  7. Samjohnson951 says:

    i cant believe a woman would go thru so much pain to feel beautiful what happened about we are all beautiful in our own way

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