When I have thought of foot-binding in the past, which wasn't all that often, I've tended to view it as just one of those grim social practices, built on a mixture of social positioning and sexism, which disfigured the bodies of women. That's not wrong, but it's an oversimplification. Why did such a practice arise at one time, but not another time? Why did it end? Why did it differ across regions of China? Why feet? Xinyu Fan and Lingwei Wu give a fuller sense of context in "The Economic Motives for Foot-binding," a version of which was given at the meetings of the Allied Social Science Associations in Atlanta in early January.
Here's a comment on how foot-binding was perceived in China (footnotes and citations omitted):
Originating from a female dancer in imperial palace during the Five Dynasties (907-960), foot-binding persisted for nearly a millennium in historical China. ... Foot-binding decisions by parents were made at girl’s early childhood (i.e. age 5 to 12), and marriage market matching took place in a later stage (i.e. 16-25). The bride’s family used the option to bind daughter’s feet to compete for better marriage opportunities and insure against downward mobility in the future. Regarding the value of foot-binding, men’s preference revealed it as a combination of appreciation of women’s beauty and virtue. For its aesthetic value, there exists a long-standing admiration of women’s small feet and elegant gait, traceable in Chinese poems and prose. In addition, foot-binding was also considered as carrying a “vector of status” , as a symbol of elegance, good breeding and a mark of status and virtue. Since foot-binding is a painful process for women to undertake, well-shaped and tiny bound feet also help to reveal their endurance, obedience and submissiveness. Taken together, as a package of beauty and women’s feminine virtue, foot-binding captured the key elements of men’s moral and aesthetic appreciation of women.
Fan and Wu point out that the foot-binding in China coincided with more widespread use of a national Civil Service Examination, which shook up the possibilities for social mobility in China. They write:
"Foot-binding is modeled as a premarital investment made by girls’ parents for marriage market competition. The heart of our theory is to relate such investment decisions with the dynamics of a gender-specific social mobility system – the Civil Examination System (in Chinese, the Keju, 607-1905). Briefly, the exam system triggered a transition from heredity aristocracy to meritocracy, under which system talented males could climb up the social ladder by passing exams while those who failed the exams would move downwards. As a consequence, the exams introduced greater social mobility, and resulted in a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women on marital quality. This induced greater premarital investments by women for better marriage opportunities and against potential downward mobility. Foot-binding, as a package embodies both aesthetic and moral values of women, was adopted to differentiate themselves in the marriage market and served as a social ladder for women to climb up."
Foot-binding varied by region, and areas where physical mobility for women had greater economic value had less footbinding.
Given that foot-binding deforms women’s feet, it sharply limits physical mobility thus precludes them from engaging in intensive non-sedentary activities, while having much less of an effect on sedentary activities such as household handicraft production. Therefore, among lower class women who played an active income-earning role, foot-binding prevalence exhibited regional variations driven by different agricultural regimes. In particular, foot-binding of lower class women was highly prevalent in regions where women specialized in sedentary labor (e.g. household handicraft), and less popular in regions requiring labor-intensive farmland work (e.g. rice cultivation).
Footbinding ended early in the 20th century. Part of the reason was a government campaign against the practice. But economic forces were also at work. The national civil service examination ended in 1905, and educational and job opportunities for women were opening up.
Following the logic of the above model, we characterize the decline of foot-binding as the consequence of two forces: (1) the decreasing benefit of foot-binding in the marriage market, driven by equalization in gender-specific mobility; and (2) the increasing opportunity cost of foot-binding in the labor market. Regarding the first force, the exam system was abolished officially in 1905. During the Republican and following periods, girls had increasing educational, economic and social/public opportunities. The increasing equality of opportunities promoted gendersymmetric mobility, and women’s quality dispersion began to catch up with that of men. ... Another economic force driving women out of foot-binding was the modern industrialization process in textile. Combining data on local transportation, industrialization and economic development, Bossen and Gates (2017) demonstrated that the demise of foot-binding was closely related to the rise of textile industries that gradually replaced traditional household handicraft production, and some of them had to leave home to work in distant factories. Under these circumstances, foot-binding is no longer a desired tool to compete in the marriage market, as its benefits shrank while its opportunity cost increased.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.