The historical origins of the practice (torture?) of footbinding are vague, although brief references in Chinese texts of the time suggest that small feet for women were preferred as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.). The first documented reference to the actual binding of a foot is from the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing (618 - 900 A.D.). The text celebrates the fame of its dancing girls renowned for their tiny feet and beautiful bow shoes. The practice became the standard for feminine beauty at the imperial court, the mark of a "woman of wealth and taste," and then spread downward socially and geographically as the lower classes endeavored to imitate the style of the elite (as it is ever thus).
As you can imagine, they spent most of their time lying around on sofas, which may sound like a cushy deal, but not when you start thinking about it. Too much lying around and lack of exercise and pretty soon your leg muscles would start to atrophy and you would just dissolve into a puddle of weak, useless flesh.
The practice was banned by the Chinese Republic in 1912, but continued on the down low into the 1930's, after which it finally died out. (After all, hard-working Communist women have to be able to haul ass!)
As a proud mother, I have to say that my wise-beyond-her-years daughter left the store with a pair of lovely, sparkling, eye-catching shoes... with sensible heels!