What made us mutilate little girls’ feet?

Chinese footbiding captures the imagination. It has mainly been talked about from the aesthetic viewpoint, though deeper forces must have been at play for such a mutilating assault on children to become as widespread as it did, and last for a millenium.

I am still looking for a psychological analysis of the dynamic. In the meantime, I stumbled upon this fascinating econometric paper that analyses the economics of the practice.

In a nutshell, footbinding was a pre-marital investment in girls in the marriage market that became most widespread when:

  • The benefit of footbinding rose: The possibility of “marrying up” emerged when there appeared a new class of high status men with the Keju civil service exam. Many of the new elite came from the working classes. Women of all classes were able to compete for them.
  • The cost of footbinding decreased: The value of women’s light, sedentary work – e.g. weaving textiles at home instead of farming the fields – increased.
    • For example, when the cotton revolution occurred, allowing women to provide an economical valuable contribution from home, the opportunity cost of having bound feet decreased for working class women
    • Note that footbinding among the working class was less prevalent in the rice-farming South which could not dispense with women’s physical labor, than in the wheat-growing North.

The econometric paper that describes the mathematical model used can be found here. Fascinating read, if one skips the Propositions, Corollaries, Lemmas, and their demonstrations!


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