First, the whole ugly process of foot binding began when a girl was about 4 years old. A long cloth was tightly bound around each of her feet, causing her four smaller toes to bend completely under. Then, every day, the binding would be pulled tighter and tighter, until - after two or three years — the little girl’s foot was essentially broken in half and bent double.
Sometimes a rock or large block of stone would be used to break the bones that inhibited progress. Other times the child would simply be forced to walk back and forth on her bound and bent feet, so that her own weight would help crush the foot into the desired shape. The pain was excruciating and endless. At times it was so intense that the child would black out. Often the mother (to whom it fell to enact the time-honored tradition), would gag the child to muffle her screams. Each day she would clean blood and pus from the child’s wounds. Frequently bits of dead gangrenous flesh would fall off. Often whole toes would come loose. And all the while, the stench was beyond belief.
But when the process was finally “complete”, the result was essentially a pair of castrated feet about three to four inches long. The resulting dainties required the girl or woman to lead the life of the quiet homebody, depending on her husband to handle all matters outside the home–- a situation remarkably in keeping with the ancient Confucian teachings about the proper relations between men and women. In fact, Confucian values such as chastity, obedience, and loyalty were assured by the little bound feet possessed by vast numbers of Chinese wives and daughters.
Multiple theories attempt to explain the origin of foot binding: from the desire to emulate the naturally tiny feet of a favored concubine of a prince, to a story of an empress who had club-like feet, which became viewed as a desirable fashion. However, there is little strong textual evidence for the custom prior to the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing (937–75 AD/CE), which celebrated the fame of its dancing girls, renowned for their tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes. What is clear is that foot binding was first practised among the elite and only in the wealthiest parts of China, which suggests that binding the feet of well-born girls represented their freedom from manual labor and, at the same time, the ability of their husbands to afford wives who did not need to work, who existed solely to serve their men and direct household servants while performing no labor themselves. The economic and social attractions of such women may well have translated into sexual desirability among elite men.