For 1,000 years, tiny, curved feet were considered the standard of feminine beauty in China, leading about 3 billion Chinese women to bind their feet during this time, despite the fact that foot binding was a long, extremely painful process that resulted in severely deformed feet for life [source: Ross].
Several stories exist as to how the practice got started, but the most popular and credible says it began with Emperor Li Yu, who reigned during the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975 A.D.). In 970, the emperor reportedly saw his favorite consort dancing on a golden lotus pedestal and was entranced by her feet, which she had wrapped in strips of cloth — much like those of a ballerina dancing en pointe. Seeing the emperor’s favor, other court maidens similarly wrapped their feet. Soon upper-class women adopted the fashion, and eventually it spread to all women, no matter their social status. Only a few regions resisted, like the Manchu and those who hailed from Guangdong in southern China [sources: Holman, Ross].
Unfortunately, as the custom took hold, it morphed. Women wanted ever-smaller, more curved feet, and so the foot binding process was created to achieve highly arched, 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) feet. The practice thrived for 1,000 years until it was outlawed in 1912 after the revolution of Sun Yat-sen. However, women continued to bind their feet in parts of China until the late 1950s [sources: Evans, Minnesota-China Connection].
Keep reading to learn how the practice affected not only the women who participated in it, but the entire culture’s gender identities, family relationships, architecture, and even world exploration and colonization.