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Understanding Song Dynasty Women in their shoes

---Authors: Vivian, Chenda, GX What would you think of when we talk about Dynasties? 

long ass time

Our focus is on the rights of women in the Song Dynasty (c. 960-1279CE). Simultaneously, we aim to give a view of their practices from the prevailing perspectives of their time.

So without further ado, let’s get started with some basic things about the women in Song Dynasty:

Women in Song

Background of Song Dynasty 

Tang dynasty, the predecessor of Song dynasty, used to be half Turkish nomads who conquered China. Whereas, the Songs identified themselves as the Hans Chinese who viewed nomadic tribes to be uncultured lot. Hence upon rising to power, the Songs focused on culturedness as a means to differentiate themselves from the Tangs.

The rights of women varied according to the person (male/female) who assumed power in the dynasties. Hence, from Figure 1, it is said that Song women enjoyed a higher level of equality in their time.

With the Songs in power, the physical aspect of Tang sports on horseback was replaced by the literary arts. At the same time, foot binding was developed as an expression of sophistication by ensuring the lotus gait in women that is seen to be sexy. An origin theory was that a prince in the first century was entranced by the fluid movements of a concubine with petite feet which seemed to skim the tops of golden lilies.

However, at this point, it is important to understand that foot-binding is just a practice. It is neither good or bad but just a normal part of their life.

A collective of ideas lead to values and values motivate people to action. It is the very concept of groupthink. The idea of foot-binding was also relatively new to the Song Dynasty as we will mention in the section of Art.

  • Symbol of superiority 

Bound feet were symbols of a privileged life. Only the rich girls could afford to do so and it flaunted their status as a gentry, who need not do any rough chores.









Foot binding is an expression of art. Both in the women's labour of creating her own shoes and the technique of making a proper wrap. Art and beauty are determined by the gentry and it perpetuates as the other commonfolk look to emulate it. Hence, starting from the rich families of the Song dynasty, the concept of foot-binding as a beauty only spread to the other classes in the subsequent dynasties.


The concept of a civilized woman was their ideal and it was backed by ancient classics before the Song dynasty in the form of Neo-Confucianism such as “Traditions of Exemplary Women” and “Admonitions for Women”. Ironically, Ban Zhao, a well-educated woman with a role in court to educate the empress and concubines, was the author for “Admonitions for Women”.

Diligence in maintaining the shape of the feet and the ability to overcome hardships was judged from the size of the lotus shoe and it made the woman desirable in arranged marriages. Becoming closer to the Han’s identity of being a cultured woman. In short, they have created the Chinese Cinderella.

Chao (2009) points out that the perspective of a woman’s body in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is very much enmeshed with the social and political realms. Using the ideas of how women(The four great beauties of China) are seen to be dangerous for their ability to bring down dynasties(video link), we bring in sociology into history to explain the view of the sexual as a capital that women possess.

This sexual capital then allows access to social networks, political power and economic capital, which threatens the power of male dominance in patriarchy(XVII-XXI). Hence, there would be a to control women's sexuality and the degradation of women as the erotic vessel for reproduction(refer to image below). It would then downplay women’s power and reduce them to mere objects. Therefore an object in TCM would not have need to care for feet infections.


Knowledge of the prevailing concepts in their society is key to understanding the actions of another person. Hence it makes things interesting to view history in their perspective. Moreover, if you did go through the source links, many texts from the various dynasties are at conflict over the code of conduct, signifying differences in the practice of gender and warping of texts after interpretations. For example, Confucianism would not have allowed body modification[Classics of Filial Piety Stanza1].

Perceptions changed with industrialisation and education as it required the other half of the workforce for cheap labour, it was then that the practice was finally abandoned. Unfortunately, it would seem to be the exchange of one chain for another. However, do take heart for change will surely come if we set our eyes on the prize and hold on.