Footbinding: A gene-culture co-evolutionary approach to a one thousand year tradition

Session Date: 
Feb 9, 2024

'Footbinding' refers to a 1000-year-long practice in which ethnically Han Chinese families would modify the feet of young girls often by repeatedly wrapping the four small toes under the sole of the foot to maintain its small size, often breaking those toes in the process. Various explanations for the origins, maintenance, and cessation of footbinding have been proposed, and two stand out: the Labor Market Hypothesis and an Evolutionary Social Sciences Hypothesis. The purpose of this paper is to express some desiderata on a theory of footbinding; to present a variety of facts about footbinding that merit explanation; to distinguish clearly between explanations of the origins, the maintenance, and the cessation of footbinding; and to articulate the main components of each of these two theories. In adjudicating between the two theories, sundry evidence about footbinding drawn autopsy results, medical examinations, anthropological records about wedding practices, testimonies of footbinding fetishes, interviews with footbound women, contents of popular songs, and citations of many historical texts about footbinding is presented. It is argued that principles from evolutionary social and psychological sciences about hypergyny, mate guarding, parental competition, mate competition, and paternal uncertainty better explain the origins and maintenance of footbinding than do facts about the labor market.