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Ancient Beauty
by Ruth
June 22, 2008


In my childhood, every time I looked at my grandma’s tiny embroidered shoes, I had a strong desire to try them on, but they never fit me!

My Cinderella

“Grandma, why did you bind your feet?” I asked.

“My mother bound them,” she answered.

“Why did your mother bind your feet?”

She looked at me and said with a smile: “Because small feet were considered beautiful. In the past, if a woman had big feet, no man would marry her!” Actually, Grandma didn’t tell me that small feet were sexy to Chinese men at that time. “Three-inch gold lilies” was men’s laudatory term for women’s bound feet. Before a man promised to marry a woman, he would make sure that she had bound feet. Sometimes, he would ask the matchmaker to measure the feet of the girl whom he had chosen to marry. If the girl’s foot size was larger than the provided measure, she couldn’t be that man’s “Cinderella” . Women with big feet not only couldn’t marry men, but also they would feel ashamed for their whole life.

The Origin of “Three-inch Gold Lilies”

Why were women’s bound feet called “three-inch gold lilies” in the past of China? In Chinese culture lilies are considered noble and unsullied, and as auspicious symbols. So, men liked to mention women’s bound feet in the same breath as lilies to praise women’s small sexy feet. Also, Chinese like to modify some things that were precious and wonderful with gold, therefore men put the word “gold” before “lilies” to make “gold lilies.”

The Size of Bound Feet

“Grandma, did you feel pain when your feet were bound at first?” She didn’t answer my question. But, she smiled, looked at me and said, “You need to pay a price to be beautiful!” My grandma was a well-cultured woman in that time, and she was a student of old-style private school in her childhood and youth. Nevertheless, no matter how well-cultured or illiterate you were, rich or poor, a woman’s only hope was to bind her feet and wait for her man. With their feet, women played for high stakes for their lifetime happiness. They bound their feet smaller and smaller. Those fanatics of small feet graded bound feet according to the size. “Gold lilies” were smaller than three-inch; “silver lilies” were smaller than four-inch; “iron lilies” were bigger than four-inch.

Small Shoes

What was really sexy were those small embroidered shoes. Usually, women had many pairs of small shoes, and they would change shoes several times a day. Morning shoes were embroidered with buds just ready to burst, and in afternoon shoes displayed flowers in full bloom. Soft-soled red shoes were sleeping shoes. Shoes were made of silk, cotton, and waterproof canvas. Different patterns of shoes had different meaning. Dragons and phoenixes were for brides; mandarin ducks were for married women. Some soles had patterns of lilies on them; others colourful flowers. The shapes of shoes were varied. Generally, soles of small shoes were bent upward like a bow, and they were also called “bow shoes.” Some shoes were sewn with small bells that tinkled when walking..

I can’t explain why bound feet were considered beautiful in the past time of China; we cannot explain why skinny women are attractive nowadays in North America. Different cultures have different interpretations of beauty. After all, “small feet” was a part of the interesting history of China. That’s ancient beauty Chinese style!