Circumcision and Footbinding

The parallels are astounding

Two Chinese women with (concealed) bound feet

For nearly 1000 years the little girls of wealthy Chinese families had their feet bent double, sometimes with bones broken, and bound that way, making them barely able to walk. The pain was exquisite. Some died. This condition was considered healthy and beautiful.

For many thousands of years, the little boys of a variety of cultures have had an integral part of their penis cut off, making them less able to enjoy sex. The pain is exquisite. Some die. This condition is considered healthy and beautiful.

Bound feet
Bound feet
Circumcised penis
A circumcised penis


There is no doubt that the pain and damage of footbinding is greater than that of circumcision. However, as social phenomena, there are many points of comparison.
Footbinding Circumcision
Performed on one sex Girls Boys
Painful Very Very
Duration of pain Years Weeks
Fatality ~10% unknown
For sexuality Yes Yes
For aesthetics Yes Yes
Without consent Yes Yes
Accepted by its recipients Usually Usually


This column is largely based on a paper by Marie Vento

The origins of footbinding are not well known. There is some suggestion that small feet were preferred for women as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), but actual binding is first documented among the dancers of the imperial harem in Nanjing, during the Southern Tang Dynasty (837-975).

For the beginnings of circumcision see the Chronology, but it antedates the Jews, and probably the Egyptians. It is older than footbinding, and its roots more lost in pre-history.

In its most extreme form, footbinding was the wrapping of a three- to five-year old girl's feet with strips of cloth, bending the toes under the foot, breaking the bones and forcing the heel toward the front of the sole. This was known as the "golden lotus".

In its most extreme form, circumcision involves the complete ablation of the foreskin and the frenulum. Some Australian Aboriginal tribes go further, and slit the ventral surface of the penis, opening the urethra to its base.

It was not always this extreme; some experienced a milder form that did not involve the breaking of bones.

Milder forms of circumcision may involve only the removal of a slim ring of skin or a dorsal slit.

Originally, footbinding may have begun as a way of enforcing the imperial male's exclusive sexual access to his female consorts, ensuring their chastity and fidelity, but its impact extended far beyond these boundaries.

Circumcision may have begun as a propitiatory sacrifice of part of the penis to protect the rest, or as sympathetic magic to promote fertility by making the penis resemble one in a state of arousal, but its impact extended far beyond these boundaries.

The freedom of imperial and palace women to move about was restricted.

The original intention of circumcision was to restrict sexual pleasure.

As the practice became more common, it became customary to compress the girls' feet so much that women could only hobble about with difficulty, or had to lean on a wall or another person for support. Upper-class women became virtually confined to their boudoirs. Physically prevented from moving about freely and unchaperoned, they were unable to be unfaithful.

Tribal circumcision was often done by pulling out the foreskin and chopping it off, leaving a variable amount. About the second century CE, Jewish practice was codified to ensure that as little as possible was left. Modern surgical practice varies. It may have originated at a mitigated form of ritual castration.

A girl of a wealthy family was often given her first personal servant at the time her feet were first bound, to comfort her in her pain and sleeplessness, and carry her into the garden when it was too painful for her to walk.

In the Jewish ritual, the baby is given a sop of wine or sugar as a pacifier when he is circumcised. Modern surgical practice recommends anaesthesia, but this can only partially and temporarily alleviate the pain of circumcision.

Sanctioned by tradition and exaggerated over time, the practice was supported and transmitted by women. It was believed to promote health and fertility, although in reality, bound feet were malodorous and virtually crippling.

Santioned by tradition and exaggerated over time, circumcision is supported and transmitted by circumcised men and by women. It is believed to promote health and cleanliness, and variously, fertility. In reality the circumcised penis is no "cleaner" that the intact one.

The bound foot was described as aesthetically pleasing compared with the natural alternative, but complications like ulceration, paralysis and gangrene were not uncommon.

The circumcised penis is described as aethetically pleasing compared to the natural alternative, but complications are not uncommon, and can include gangrene.

It has been estimated that as many as one in ten of the girls did not survive the "treatment".

The number of boys who die from circumcision is unknown. Their deaths are likely to be attributed to the complicating factor such as anaesthetic, infection or haemorrhage, without reference to the circumcision that caused it.

Family harmony embraced the ideas of female purity and seclusion, and was paramount, especially since Neo-Confucian thinking glorified virtuous women and praised footbinding as the ultimate marker of civility - in spite of the Confucian ideal that precluded mutilation of the body.

Circumcision flies in the face of the Jewish Mitzvot that preclude cutting or marking the flesh. (N 41 Not imprinting any marks on our bodies, N 45 Not making cuttings in our flesh - 613 Mitzvos according to Sefer Hamitzvos of Rambam)

Having a daughter with bound feet conferred many potential benefits both on the girl and her family, turning the biological disadvantage of being born female into a social advantage by increasing her opportunities for making a wealthy marriage.

The AAP says circumcision has "potential benefits".

In a society with a cult of female chastity, a primary purpose of footbinding was to limit mobility, radically restricting the means by which females were allowed to be in the world at large.

Circumcision was instituted to restrict sexuality, by preventing masturbation.

A little girl's feet were painfully and forcibly compressed just when she was expected to begin understanding the Confucian discipline of maintaining a "mindful body", giving the process meaning for her.

Tribal circumcision frequently is done at the brink of puberty; the boy's acceptance of the pain marking his transition to manhood.

An important aspect of the allure of the bound foot was its concealment. To be acceptable the feet had to be covered by binders, socks and shoes, doused in perfurne and scented powder, and then hidden under layers of leggings and skirts.

Circumcision arose in the west at just the time that the greatest emphasis was put on concealing the genitals.

Women also cared for their feet in strict privacy. They often washed their feet separately from the rest of their body to shield themselves and others from contamination.

One purpose of circumcision was to render the penis "maintenance free". Jewish boys were taught to urinate without touching their penises, something not practical if they were intact. Today in the US, the horrors of cleaning the intact penis are greatly exaggerated.

Only those privileged with the greatest intimacy were allowed to see the feet being cleansed and cared for, and women wore special bed slippers even when they were otherwise nude.

Even today, the circumcised penis is subject to greater concealment in US media than the female genitals (pornography being the exception that proves the rule). In intact cultures, the intact penis has been much more taken for granted (e.g. in public artworks) for centuries.

Much of footbinding's mystique flowed from this concealment of the physicality of the foot, imitating the requirement of privacy that society and family placed on the individual.

The silence around circumcision, reflecting the earlier silence around sex, has enabled it to flourish. Marriage manuals have been written in the US in which the possibility that a man might have a foreskin was not considered.

To some extent, footbinding was considered an aspect of female clothing or adornment, rather than body mutilation, as the body was not necessarily viewed as an enclosed physical entity.

Circumcision in the west has been so normalised that desribing it as "mutilation" generates howls of outrage. That it is a surgical operation or that it removes any tissue is denied. It is frequently described in euphemistic terms as a "snip" or a "circ."

Correct attire was regarded as the ultimate expression of Chinese culture and identity, differentiating the Chinese from "inferior" foreign neighbors while marking social and gender distinctions within Chinese society. Properly attired bodies reflected order and control, unadorned bodies and feet were visible signs of disorder and dangerous nonconformity. The person concered risked being associated with barbarian outsiders.

In the US, circumcision has become "the American thing to do."

Besides signaling femininity and gender distinctions, footbinding functioned as a marker of national boundaries. In distinguishing the Han Chinese from other ethnic groups, it served as a reflection of cultural prestige due to its embodiment of Confucian ethics of civility and filial piety, a key to its enduring appeal.

For many peoples, circumcision has served as a marker of nationality or status. It is commonly regarded as more "masculine" and there are many cultures in which women will not have sex with an intact man.

For Chinese men, bound feet were associated with higher-status love and sex, carrying at the same moment strong connotations of both modesty and lasciviousness. Bound feet became a sexual fetish and were said to be conducive to better intercourse.

In the US, the circumcised penis is a focus of erotic appeal to both women and gay men. In Iowa, Williamoson and Williamson found women exhibiting a strong sexual preference for the circumcised penis even though they had never experienced any other kind. Circumcision itself has also been fetishised by a small group of men.

A widespread male fantasy was that footbinding caused its owner to have a highly-muscled vagina "full of wondrous folds", while the tiny appearance of the foot aroused both lust and pity.

Circumcision is alleged to make a man a better lover by enabling him to prolong intercourse. (In fact, the likelihood is that reducing the area of his erogenous tissue reduces his ability to control his sexual arousal.)

Chinese pornography of the past reflected a preoccupation with the feet. The men who adored them - "lotus lovers" - became the authors of the classics of brothel culture, which describe in detail the various shapes of bound feet and the erotic practices in which they could be employed.

Circumfetishists are fond of studying the varieties of circumcision, whether high or low, loose or tight.

In the Qing period (1644 - 1911), opposition began to emerge, although it was both belated and weak. The Qing ruling nobility, who were ethnically Manchu, attempted to prohibit the custom among the conquered Han Chinese.

Hadrian prohibited circumcision throughout the Roman Empire in 137 CE. Reform Jews considered opposition to it in the early years of the 19th century. Opponents of "medical" circumcision were isolated until Marilyn Milos founded NOCIRC in 1985. The movement continues to grow.

In 1645, the first Shunzhi emperor mandated that footbinding be banned, but his successor, the Kangxi emperor, revoked the ban, apparently considering the practice too firmly rooted in custom to be amenable to imperial dissolution.

So far, the United Nations, Amnesty International and other bodies have not included circumcision in their concerns, probably in the knowledge that it is the one issue that would arouse the wrath of both Jews and Muslims.

The practice continued into the 20th century, when a combination of internal Chinese and Western missionary-inspired pressures generated calls for reform and a true anti-footbinding movement emerged. It was formally outlawed in 1911.

Circumcision has fallen to residual levels in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, where it once flourished. Purely medical arguments led to its demise. It is being legally questioned only in Scandinavia.

Educated Chinese realized that it made them appear barbaric to foreigners, social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation (on the basis that enfeebled women produced weak sons), and feminists attacked it because it caused women to suffer

Increasingly, circumcision makes the US appear barbaric to foreigners (though few have any idea how prevalent it still is). Social Darwinism does not figure. Some in the US men's movement blame women, and feminists are more concerned with FGM.

The work of the anti-footbinding reformers had three aspects. First, they carried out a modern education campaign, which explained that the rest of the world did not bind women's feet and that China was losing face in the world, making it subject to international ridicule.

The Intactivist movement has yet to work systematically.
The US probably does not care about its "face" in the rest of the world (any more than those were issues with the Vietnam war or segregation).

Second, their education campaign explained the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet.

This rational, educational campaign is the main tactic of Intactivism at present.

Third, they formed natural-foot societies, whose members pledged not to bind their daughter's feet nor to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.

What a good idea! The second half of the ban would have to be "not to refuse a man in marriage because he was intact" or many men and women would needs stay single.

These three tactics effectively succeeded in bringing footbinding to a quick end, eradicating in a single generation a practice which had survived for a thousand years. Young girls were thereafter spared the tortures of footbinding, although older women with bound feet may still be seen in China and Taiwan.

In Britain, the National Health Service would pay no extra for it, and an influential article put it out of favour with doctors.
Circumcision ended in New Zealand in less than a generation, but largely by fiat from above: it was not allowed at public expense in the biggest women's hospital, then the government refused to pay for it within the universal maternity benefit.

Nonetheless, footbinding abolished in a way that was both chaotic and unfair, with sloganeering and excesses of the anti-footbinding movement of the 1920's reminiscent of Cultural Revolution excesses, claiming many families as its victims.

Many circumcised men greatly resent being desribed as "mutilated".

Ironically, those with bound feet suffered once again as targets of this anti-footbinding movement by being forced to unbind their feet, an act only marginally less painful than the initial binding.

Ironically, men who have restored their own foreskins are at the forefront of the Intactivist movement, a process both voluntary and painless, but requiring a dedication comparable to that of a mother binding her daughter's feet.

The beauty of bound feet was a value deeply rooted in the Chinese aesthetic and sexual psyche. Bound feet, and the women who had them, were considered beautiful and highly desirable, and natural, so-called big feet were considered ugly, as were the women who possessed them. To change such deeply held values, the patterns and feelings associated with them had to be inverted. What was beautiful had to be rendered ugly, and what was ugly, beautiful.

This is true for a lesser extent for circumcision, but the circumcised penis is cherished as "normal" rather than "beautiful".

To destroy one and replace it with another, the perception of beauty attached to bound feet had to be destroyed, which in its extreme moments necessitated an assault on the women who had them. This almost-unreal process of change demanded its price, and the payment was often in the form of great individual suffering.

There is no need to attack circumcised men in order to end circumcision.

Footbinding is a bold issue, as for many Chinese people the practice is so linked to sex and sexuality that it makes them uncomfortable to discuss it and consider it seriously.

The silence around circumcision, coupled with the religious significance attached to it by two major groups, makes it hard to attack directly.

For others the topic is embarassing because it suggests a backwards or barbaric streak in Chinese Culture.

Would that this were so in the US! It will happen.

For men footbinding is troubling because it suggests not only that men are capable of perceiving a gruesomely crippled foot as an object of sexual pleasure, but that they are further capable of using their superior social position to coerce women to conform to a standard of beauty that is both deformed and grotesque.

Circumcision ought to be viewed in this way, with the vulnerability of babies substituted for the vulnerability of women, but that is yet to happen.

For women, footbinding is unsettling because it reveals a willingness to cripple their own daughters to meet an aesthetic and criterion of social behavior defined by men.

Many men are unwilling to admit that they have lost anything to circumcision. Women are generally ill-informed about what it is and does.

In 1995 Chinese film maker Yang Yeuqing found great difficulty in making a film about footbinding since no one in China was willing to talk about it, and she feared that Chinese authorities would attempt to block the project.

The film "Whose Body, Whose Rights?" had to be made in two versions, one with and one without a naked man talking about his own feelings about his circumcision.

Chinese movies about China prior to 1911 never depict women with bound feet and Chinese museums do not display the exquisitely embroidered three-inch-long shoes that women with bound feet were obliged to wear. At the October 1996 Arts of Pacific Asia show in New York City, Beverly Jackson, author of Splendid Slippers: Size One Narrow, exhibited her rare collection of 142 pairs of footbinding shoes, but had to field numerous complaints from outraged observers.

For the depiction of circumcision in US media, see the relevant page.

In 1995, Gump's department store in San Francisco tried selling pairs of the tiny antique shoes for $975, but was quickly compelled to dismantle the accompanying, display after receiving heated objections from customers.

Some day, CircumstraintsTM, GomcoTM SheldonTM and MogenTM clamps and PlastibellsTM may be sold as antiques, to similar protests.

It is apparent that the subject remains a sensitive one. Approval for liberated feet is now unanimous, regardless of gender or culture.

Some day, the intact penis will be as unanimously approved.


"Footbinding stopped because it became such a powerful symbol of national shame"

- TV Documentary, China: the Wild East (1995)


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The New York Times

Idea Lab

The Art of Social Change

Published: October 22, 2010

In 1929, the Church of Scotland Mission, which had a long and successful history of missionary work among the Kikuyu in colonial Kenya, began a campaign to eradicate the practice of female circumcision. The results were hardly what church members hoped for. Large numbers of Kikuyu left the church, and Kenya’s leading anticolonial political organization mounted a vigorous attack on the church’s policies. Female circumcision became a nationalist issue, and a custom that might have gradually disappeared grew further entrenched. Nearly 40 percent of Kenyan women today are estimated to have undergone some form of it.

So if you care about the foreign victims of immemorial, immoral rituals, you will want to proceed carefully and perhaps learn from history. International humanitarian campaigns don’t have to backfire. It might be useful to look at their notable successes, in fact, and see what swung the balance.

Take the late-19th-century campaign against foot-binding in China. The custom began to die out in the first decade of the 20th century. In most places, it happened quickly. The American political scientist Gerry Mackie, an expert on social norms, gives the example of a large group of families in a rural area south of Beijing, in which 99 percent of women born before 1890 had bound feet, and none of the women born after 1919 had bound feet. The campaign against foot-binding didn’t work immediately. But when it took hold, that thousand-year-old practice essentially vanished in a single generation.

It wasn’t that the campaigners had new arguments. The Chinese knew foot-binding produced suffering and debility. Foot-binding was done to young girls, crushing the four smaller toes under the sole and compressing the rear of the anklebone. After months and years the pain diminished, but walking was usually difficult.

As early as the Song dynasty (960-1279), a Chinese intellectual wrote that “children not yet 4 or 5 years old, innocent and without crime, are caused to suffer limitless pain.” In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), attempts were made to ban it, but did not succeed. The tiniest feet — three-inch “golden lotuses,” as they were known — were important as a sign of status for women who could afford not to work in the fields or walk to market; the bound foot was a sign and instrument of chastity too, by limiting the movements of women. And you can’t overstate the force of convention: Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.

The movement that eventually turned the Chinese around began with Christian missionaries in the 1860s. In 1875, the Rev. John Macgowan of the London Missionary Society, who had campaigned for some 15 years against foot-binding, called a meeting of Christian women in Xiamen. He asked them to sign a pledge to abandon foot-binding. Nine women did. Eventually women joined the Quit-Footbinding Society in larger numbers, pledging not to bind the feet of their daughters and some choosing to undergo the often painful process of unbinding themselves. Then they were joined, in 1894, by the Unbound Foot Association, which the Confucian scholar and reformist leader Kang Youwei helped found. It eventually had more than 10,000 members. The next year, Mrs. Archibald Little, the wife of an English businessman, helped found the Natural Foot Society. Together, a mixture of campaigning outsiders and modernizing insiders built a national movement for change.

The wisest campaigners began by insisting on their respect for China’s civilization. Christian missionaries set up newspapers and magazines like Review of the Times, founded in 1868, which gave the elite access — in classical Chinese — to ideas and events from the world outside China. The Rev. Timothy Richard of the Baptist Missionary Society, who edited The Eastern Times for a period beginning in 1890, was highly influential, too.

Richard grasped that the key to China lay with the literati, the scholarly class that produced the empire’s policy makers. He dressed as they did, learned their language and studied the texts that formed the core of their education. As for Mrs. Little, her main strategy was to republish anti-foot-binding essays by distinguished Chinese writers.

(Page 2 of 2)

Kang Youwei wrote in his autobiography that Review of the Times introduced him to Western ideas and that this was what led him to start thinking about foot-binding. He had, he said, been distressed by the pain his female relatives underwent when their feet were bound. He declined to allow the binding of his own daughters’ feet. In 1898, Kang sent a memorandum to the emperor. “All countries have international relations, and they compare their political institutions with one another,” he began, “so that if one commits the slightest error, the others ridicule and look down upon it.” And he added, “There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot-binding.”

Kang was ashamed that his society mutilated its daughters, but people like Richard and Little could hone that sense of shame only because their arguments were founded in respect, not in contempt.

A second essential reason for the campaign’s success was that it created institutions; it didn’t content itself with rhetoric. In particular, it created organizations whose members publicly pledged two things: not to bind their daughters’ feet and not to allow their sons to marry women whose feet were bound. The genius of this strategy was that it created both unbound women and men who would marry them. To reform tradition, you had to change the shared commitments of a community. If Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do, you had to change what was normal.

This isn’t a complete explanation of the campaign’s stunning success, of course. The particular circumstances of late Qing China mattered a great deal, too. Over the previous several decades, a society that had long regarded Westerners with contempt had to accept that these foreigners, however culturally inferior by Confucian standards, could beat it in battles on land and sea. Part of the reason the modernizers like Kang Youwei were drawn into dialogue with Westerners like Timothy Richard was precisely their sense that their society was failing to meet the challenges from abroad.

The abolition of foot-binding didn’t come about without backlash. Far from it. Yet reform, if handled deftly, can brave the backlash and prevail. Once you grasp the elements that made for success against foot-binding, you can see examples around the world of what to do and what not to do. In 1997, in the village of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, a group of women told a press conference that they were going to abandon female circumcision, or female genital cutting (F.G.C.). The decision was a result of discussions that began some years earlier, when Tostan, a human rights group based in Dakar, introduced its Community Empowerment Program. Tostan’s aim wasn’t to end F.G.C. It was to provide people in the community with knowledge about human rights. But gradually, through the course of discussions of health and human rights, both women and men in Malicounda Bambara turned against F.G.C.

The press conference was a mistake, because it prompted a reaction in the villages around Malicounda Bambara. As the imam of one such village, Keur Simbara, put it: “We are part of an intermarrying community, and unless all the villages involved take part, you are asking parents to forfeit the chance of their daughters getting married.” Tostan’s leadership recalibrated. They introduced those other villages to the same ideas: if you’re going to change the practices of girls, you have to make sure that you change the minds of the families of the boys who might marry them.

Two years later, the government of Senegal decided to criminalize those who “violate the integrity of the female genitalia.” Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Senegalese faced the possibility of up to five years in prison. Tostan had to cease work in the face of outrage from local communities. Many girls were cut in the following months in deliberate violation of the law. An approach based on respectful dialogue seemed to have been derailed.

Eventually, Tostan’s efforts got back on track. Its strategists — Gerry Mackie is one — knew that once enough people in the community change their minds, they can stand up together and pledge their allegiance to new practices. Tostan, in short, applied the strategy that worked against foot-binding. By the end of the coming decade, a generation of girls will have grown to womanhood in villages like Malicounda Bambara free from F.G.C.; and they will find husbands in places like Keur Simbara. The reformers are following the double lesson of the movement against foot-­binding. First, begin with a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation. Second, when you have a core of converts, organize a program of public commitment to new practices, which takes into account the traditions of the community. To end one practice, as the anti-foot-binding campaigners grasped, you need to start another.