Cover image for Every step a lotus : shoes for bound feet
Every step a lotus : shoes for bound feet
Ko, Dorothy, 1957-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
162 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 21 x 24 cm
General Note:
"The Bata Shoe Museum."
Added Corporate Author:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GT498.F66 K6 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GT498.F66 K6 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
GT498.F66 K6 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

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In Every Step a Lotus, Dorothy Ko embarks on a fascinating exploration of the practice of footbinding in China, explaining its origins, purpose, and spread before the nineteenth century. She uses women's own voices to reconstruct the inner chambers of a Chinese house where women with bound feet lived and worked. Focusing on the material aspects of footbinding and shoemaking--the tools needed, the procedures, the wealth of symbolism in the shoes, and the amazing regional variations in style--she contends that footbinding was a reasonable course of action for a woman who lived in a Confucian culture that placed the highest moral value on domesticity, motherhood, and handwork. Her absorbing, superbly detailed, and beautifully written book demonstrates that in the women's eyes, footbinding had less to do with the exotic or the sublime than with the mundane business of having to live in a woman's body in a man's world.

Footbinding was likely to have started in the tenth century among palace dancers. Ironically, it was meant not to cripple but to enhance their grace. Its meaning shifted dramatically as it became domesticated in the subsequent centuries, though the original hint of sensuality did not entirely disappear. This contradictory image of footbinding as at once degenerate and virtuous, grotesque and refined, is embodied in the key symbol for the practice--the lotus blossom, being both a Buddhist sign of piety and a poetic allusion to sensory pleasures.

Every Step a Lotus includes almost one hundred illustrations of shoes from different regions of China, material paraphernalia associated with the customs and rituals of footbinding, and historical images that contextualize the narrative. Most of the shoes, from the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, have not been exhibited before. Readers will come away from the book with a richer understanding of why footbinding carries such force as a symbol and why, long after its demise, it continues to exercise a powerful grip on our imaginations.

A Copublication with the Bata Shoe Museum

Author Notes

Dorothy Ko is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Foot binding is often cited as an emblem of the oppression of women and as such exerts a morbid fascination. But Ko, a history professor at Barnard, urges readers not to view the practice through modern eyes but to study it as a cultural phenomenon deeply embedded in Chinese history. Downplaying the tradition's erotic aspects, Ko offers a cogent discussion of Chinese women's lives during the eighteenth century, the pinnacle of the cult of the lotus foot. Mothers bound their daughters' feet, and foot binding evolved into a rite of passage into womanhood within the Confucian system, which valued female domesticity and textile arts. Shoe making became a highly prized craft and an integral part of the foot-binding ritual, and therefore Ko's enlightening narrative is accompanied by gorgeous reproductions of unbelievably tiny, exquisitely embroidered shoes for bound feet. As she identifies various shoe styles, interprets the complex symbolism of their elaborate designs, and elucidates the spiritual and religious aspects of foot binding, Ko convincingly defines the practice as a historical source of female identity, purpose, pride, and power. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

One of the best known, most torturous examples of fashionable alteration is Chinese foot binding. In Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet, Barnard College history professor Dorothy Ko looks at the making and wearing of lotus shoes, the footwear for women with bound feet. Along the way she discredits some simplistic popular notions about foot binding and emphasizes the economic and social problems that it addressed. While the practice began as an exclusive custom of leisured elites, Ko explains, it spread to the peasantry in the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in such incongruous artifacts as lotus rainboots and galoshes. Color photographs throughout the book illustrate Ko's explanation of shoemaking, foot binding and the symbolism of the shoes' decorations, though the beauty of the shoes (and this book, which includes step-by-step, how-to instructions for binding) belies the pain of the wearers. ( Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This carefully conceived work challenges modern feminist charges that Chinese foot binding was inhuman and enfeebling for women. It looks at this phenomenon culturally to explain how and why for centuries millions of women participated in this unusual practice: not merely because men forced them, but because through it women found meaning and importance in their lives. Ko (Barnard College, Columbia Univ.) may be the first to treat foot binding from the women's perspective, tying her explanations to ancient mythology, poetry, and Confucianism. Chinese women identified with goddesses and beauty and expressed their personal domestic power by making for themselves and female relatives these small "lotus" (like a flower) shoes. Ko claims that contrary to most foreign interpretations, foot binding did not break bones, but merely reshaped the foot so it would fit into a pointed shoe, itself an illusion of tiny feet. Embroidered good luck motifs such as fish and golden coins were seen by illiterate wearers as signs of fertility, happiness, wealth, or longevity. Numerous color illustrations and extensive explanations make the reader aware of the wide variety and artistic merits of lotus shoes--including outdoor, indoor, and sleeping versions. Overall, Ko handles this controversial subject with sensitivity, balance, and insight. All levels and collections. B. B. Chico Regis University

Table of Contents

Forewordp. 6
Acknowledgmentsp. 7
Introductionp. 9
1 Originsp. 21
2 The Ties That Bindp. 47
3 Bodies of Workp. 77
4 The Speaking Shoep. 97
5 A New Worldp. 131
Notesp. 148
Bibliographyp. 152
Photography Creditsp. 155
Indexp. 156