115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Three Inch Golden Lotus and Hourglass: The Imperial Relationship between Chinese Bound Feet and British Corset in the Nineteenth Century

Aran Park, University of California, Riverside

To investigate the ways in which writers exploit the Chinese foot binding custom to change British domestic trend and fashion, this essay would analyze the bidirectional influence between the Chinese feet and the British corset, the two extremely decorative fashion trends which bound and deformed the female body.


In the nineteenth century, the Chinese feet, indicating the Chinese foot binding tradition “Three-Inch Golden Lily/Lotus” (san zun jin lian), became a common knowledge of the British people, as we can see from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where Eliot uses the term “Chinese feet” without further background information to describe the oppressive situation of talented Jewish women. Considering the British public’s keen interest in the India’s widow burning ritual sati and feminists’ and orientalists’ active anti-sati movements, this foot binding tradition somehow was a well-known but not a “should be abolished” foreign cruelty for the British people. As Adam Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the “dreadful calamity” of China’s earthquake would not disturb the “humane man in Europe” more than “the most trivial disaster that could befall him” (72).

Although this tradition, which affected millions of young Chinese girls in a painful way, was not a center of attention for the social activists of the time, the term and custom have constantly used to describe or criticize the British domestic situation. While several authors, including George Eliot and Florence Nightingale, use the Chinese feet as a metaphor to describe British women problem, other authors and social activists use this custom to criticize specific British customs, especially the corset. British health and beauty writer Arnold James Cooley, in his book The Toilet and Cosmetic Arts in Ancient and Modern Times (1866), categorized Chinese foot binding in the “diversity of the taste of savages and semi-barbarous races,” who deformed their body parts to meet their own beauty standards, and then mentioned that “some of these [altering body parts customs], in a less revolting degree, have even come into usage in civilized communities,” pointing out the custom of corset and waist binding. In addition to their similar idealization and aestheticization of certain deformed female bodies, the Chinese feet and British corset are all closely related the ideal femininity and domesticity. In her book My Chinese Notebook (1904), Susan Townley describes an episode regarding the bound feet: when an American met a Chinese minister and his family on the shipboard and asked the mother about her eleven-year-old daughter’s bound feet, the Chinese mother answered that “Custom demanded small feet in the East as fashion required a small waist in the West” (131). This short sentence represents the close connection between the two East and West customs, revealing the nature of these fashions: demand of the custom. Interestingly, both empires use the other’s custom as a bad example to abolish their own custom.

In this essay, I would explore the various usages of the “Chinese feet” in the literature and cultural writings of the nineteenth century, investigating the ways in which writers exploit the term and custom to change British domestic trend and fashion. Then I would analyze the bidirectional influence between the Chinese feet and the British corset, the two fashion trends which bound and deformed the female body through the nineteenth-century literature, news articles, and other various miscellaneous writings. Especially, the visual effects of these two customs will be examined with the examples of extremely decorated Chinese slipper for the bound feet as well as the British hourglass shaped dress based on the new type of corset.