Introducing the landscape of Bound Feet Blues: The Inner Chamber of a Bound Foot Mother

In Bound Feet Blues, writer/ performer Yang-May Ooi takes us to a a diverse range of settings and times – from Oxford in England to the Australian Outback, and also the landscape of ancient China. We are giving you a glimpse into these different places here on this blog over the next few weeks.

In a central scene in Bound Feet Blues, Yang-May demonstrates on stage the gruelling process of footbinding on a little girl.  So, today, we introduce you to the inner chamber of a mother with bound feet where such a process would have most likely taken place.

The home was a woman’s domain in ancient China. Within that was the inner chamber, a private space for the women of the household only. There the women would sew and read and tell stories. And  also probably carry out the ritual of footbinding on the daughters of the family.

Women at home – thanks

Woman, Qing Dynasty – thanks to, via Pinterest

Women with bound feet via Pinterest


You can buy tickets for Bound Feet Blues via


Tristan Bates Theatre
1A Tower St, Covent Garden WC2H 9NP

Tue 24 Nov – Sat 12 Dec, Tue – Sat at 7.30pm.
Tickets £16 / £12 concessions.
Q&As post-show, 27 Nov & 4 Dec.


Beautiful women are evil – so said the Ancient Greeks

Bound Feet Blues explores female beauty in the context of Ancient China and the practice of footbinding that was meant to make a woman more beautiful. My work on this project has led me to reflect on modern concepts of beauty in the modern West. Now, I have just  seen this article on the BBC website by historian Bethany Hughes looking at the beauty in the world of the Ancient Greeks – and it points to a rather different view of beauty from what we are used to.

The article says “In ancient Greece the rules of beauty were all important. Things were good for men who were buff and glossy. And for women, fuller-figured redheads were in favour – but they had to contend with an ominous undercurrent”

In Greek mythology, the first woman to be created was …” “the beautiful-evil thing”. She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. Being a good-looking man was fundamentally good news. Being a handsome woman, by definition, spelt trouble.”

This point of view contrasts with most notions of beauty which ellide goodness of character with good looks. In Ancient China, for example, an Exemplary Woman was one who was obedient and dutiful – and who was also beautiful, where her beauty was entirely defined by the tiny size of her feet. In modern times, heroines in movies and books tend to be beautiful, too, rather than plain or ugly unless their plainness is part of the plot device/ reason for the story.

However, this Greek notion of female beauty as evil does live on today in the modern trope of the evil seductress whose beauty is Continue reading

Footbinding could have been stopped 400 years early

Bound Feet Blues – the Book continues apace. I am now 42,000+ words in as the fourth chapter builds up its word count. This chapter is entitled “Lotus Feet” and expands on the scenes in the show that dramatize the history of footbinding and the painful process of a mother binding her daughter’s feet.

I can finally share a lot of the research I did for the show but which could not be squeezed into the 25 page script that makes up the one hour long show. It has been very satisfying writing away over the last few weeks, gathering it all together in a coherent way so that those interested in the themes of the show have the chance to learn more about the details and history of this brutal yet macabrely alluring practice.

Here are the last few paragraphs I have written so far;

In 1644, the new emperor of China and the progenitor of the Ming dynasty, a Manchurian who had taken power by violence and invasion, banned footbinding. It was part of a set of laws that dictated what the Chinese people wore, mandating queues for men and the Manchu-style tunic with its high Mandarin collar for both sexes. While those latter laws came to be obeyed and over the centuries even evolved into symbols of Chinese identity, footbinding continued for almost four hundred more years.

 It is a testament to the will and defiance of generations of women.

 Manchu women did not have bound feet. But the allure of the tiny bound foot was so powerful that over time, even they wanted to have dainty little feet. I believe that some Manchu women bound their feet and their daughter’s feet. Others wore a version of high heels that gave the impression of tiny feet beneath their long gowns.

These Manchu shoes sat on top of a small pedestal that acted like short stilts at the centre of the sole. The slightly wider pedestal base acted as the surrogate foot, while the real foot in all its hugeness was balanced a few inches above, hidden from view. These stilts would have made walking precarious and would have required Continue reading

Ancient Chinese pornographic painted panels showing woman with bound feet


This Chinese wood and glass mirror box – showing a man and woman making love: you can see her tiny bound feet (c.18th century) Photo: Courtesy Science Museum, London/Science and Society Picture Library
A detail of one of the panels is below – notice the woman’s red shoes and her disproportionately small feet.


 The original panel box can be seen at the Institute of Sexology exhibition in London – on till Sept 2015
See my previous blog posts about the exhibition and other bound feet artefacts you can see there.

Continue reading

Historical figurine of bound feet woman making love

This tiny ivory couple shows a Chinese man and woman making love. You can see the man on top, with his bare feet. Under him is the woman with her legs wrapped around him. You can just about see her breasts and if you look very closely, you will see her tiny bound feet.




The original carving can be seen at the Institute of Sexology exhibition at the Wellcome Foundation, which is on till Sept 2015.

Continue reading

Performance photo – the most prized, smallest foot was “the golden lotus”

I perform Bound Feet Blues without any costumes or props – or even any shoes. My aim is to invite the audience to experience the show in the way that we have all experienced stories being told to us when we were children – that is, by co-creating the characters, events and landscapes in our imaginations.

I use my left hand to map the process of footbinding – it starts off as a normal “foot” and is steadily contorted and “broken” into the twisted shape that you see in the photo below. For comparison, I’ve also found a photo of an actual bound foot – also below.




This performance photo was taken at the scratch night in March at Conway Hall.

The most prized foot was called “the golden lotus” – it was Continue reading

Fascinating historical photos of women with bound feet in my upcoming talk The Allure of Bound Feet

I have been working on the slides for my talk The Allure of Bound Feet, which I will be giving as part of the  SEA ArtsFest 2014 Panel on Heritage in Asian Diasporic Performance.

Here is one of my slides where I will be talking about the process of footbinding and the fact that it can take up to ten years to be fully completed. The photos show girls at different ages with bound feet to illustrate the passing of time.

At the moment I have about 17 slides in total. The other slides will include woodcuts of ancient Chinese erotica – you can’t really talk about footbinding without talking about the sex appeal of the tiny foot – and also cross-gender Continue reading

Imagine a grown woman with baby feet

It’s difficult for us in the modern world to imagine how small bound feet were. Whenever I say to people that some of the smallest bound feet were only 3 inches long, they register that that is small but it’s only when they see exactly how small 3 inches is, that the horror of it hits them.

In order to illustrate how tiny bound feet were for “Breaking Tradition”, my award-winning talk inspired by the stories in Bound Feet Blues, I went online to order a pair of baby shoes. I searched and searched for baby shoes that were 3 inches long but the smallest size that I could find came to just over 4 inches.

The photo above shows me holding those 4+ inch baby shoes during Continue reading

Dramatic video clip showing footbinding in ancient China – from “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan”

“Only through pain will you find beauty,” says Snow Flower’s mother as she makes her daughter walk with her feet bound.

In my research for Bound Feet Blues, I’ve been looking into what it was like for young girls to have their feet bound. I came across the movie Snow Flower and The Secret Fan – see my blog post from earlier this week “Beaches” with Bound Feet – footbinding and female friendship – which is all about footbinding.

Here is a clip showing the sequence where one of the girls has to endure footbinding:

It is painful to watch and is  a moving dramatisation of what it must have been like for little girls who had to endure this brutal process.

The one comment I would have, however, is that from my research, footbinding is a process and not just a one-off as the film suggests.

As a girl grow up, her feet keep growing so Continue reading

“Beaches” with Bound Feet – footbinding and female friendship

In Chinese tradition, where marriages were made for social or business reasons and where women – especially those with tiny bound feet – were seen as trophies, there was a recognition that women would not find much emotional comfort, love or meaningful human connection with their husbands.

So as part of this tradition, girls were given “sworn sisters”  who would be their emotional partner – rather like the “blood brothers” relationship that boys would have. These formally sanctioned and socially accepted partnerships were known as “laotongs”.

I learnt about this intriguing custom from the film Snow Flower and The Secret Fan which I discovered over the weekend, based on the novel by Lisa See. How had I not known about this touching tradition before now!

Here is the official movie trailer:

The movie is about two female friendships, one set in modern Shanghai and the other in 19th century China, during the Boxer Rebellion. The same two actresses portray the two pairs of friends. The arc of the story has echoes Continue reading