Those Tiny Slippers

Did you know that the earliest known version of the Cinderella story was recorded in AD 850-60, in China? The story was already well known in the oral tradition, as Marina Warner points out in her book From the Beast to the Blonde [1], and may have been around much, much earlier.

The story centres around Yeh-hsien, a girl who finds herself in servitude to her scheming and envious aunt/stepmother. She is helped by the bones of a fish that was possessed by the spirit of her dead mother, visits a gathering in fine robes, and slips away, leaving behind a single tiny golden slipper. (Sounding familiar?) The king wants to find whoever owns the slipper, the smallest he has ever seen, and… well you know the story. It’s Cinderella, no doubt about it, but a good millennium earlier than the versions we know as the ‘real’ Cinderella. What struck me, and you may have had the same thought too, was how the obsession with the tiny slipper suddenly gains significance when you factor in the cultural context of foot binding.

Foot binding has a long tradition in China, and had horrendous consequences for the girls it was inflicted on. Bones are broken, toes bent under… (Look it up if you dare, but a google image search isn’t for the faint of heart.) The ideal length for a ‘lotus foot’, named for the shape of the bound foot, was 8 centimetres. That’s 3 inches. Women who had their feet bound to dainty points could barely walk, and consequently their freedom was severely restricted. The smaller the foot, the more desirable it was, in part because any wife so crippled by her delicate lotus feet wouldn’t be wandering far.

So, while the tiny glass slipper in contemporary Cinderella stories signifies her delicate beauty in a relatively innocent way, tying it back into its earlier cultural context suddenly brings a much darker significance to the tale. Cinderella wouldn’t have been dancing until midnight on those tiny feet.

1. Page 202, From The Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner, 1994

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