Foot binding, the practice of crushing young women’s feet into tiny “lotus” feet, was widespread in China for nearly a thousand years.
Long seen as a crucial way for women to elevate their status and wealth, the practice was finally banned in 1912. In recent decades, foot binding has been all but eliminated thanks to strict enforcement by the Communist Party.
Despite the ban, some women continued to bind their feet in secret. These women, mostly hidden or forgotten in tiny Chinese villages, are the last remaining survivors of the practice.
British photographer Jo Farrell has spent the last eight years travelling all over the Chinese countryside searching for these remaining women with bound feet. Despite the stigmas that currently surround foot binding, the women that Farrell met openly showed their “lotus” feet to her and revealed their stories.
Farrell has shared some of her work with us here, but you can see more on her website, Living History. Farrell recently raised nearly $US15,000 on Kickstarter to create a book of the project. You can contribute to the project or purchase a preorder of the book here.
WARNING: These photos may be upsetting to some.
Foot binding began in China in the 10th century among the royal court of the Emperor. Over the course of centuries, the practice became widespread among women in the countryside who wanted to marry above their class.
Perfectly formed, tiny feet were seen as the height of beauty in turn-of-the-century China. 'Lotus' feet were especially alluring because they limited a woman's mobility and therefore rendered her dependent on her family and her husband.
Chinese women used bandages to bind their daughters' feet in two directions. The first crushed the small toes underneath the ball of the foot. The other pushed the heel towards the toes to create a steep arch. The ideal length for a bound foot was three inches long.
Women with bound feet have been found by studies to be more susceptible to falls, less able to squat or stand up from a chair, and had far worse balance. Foot binding also had long-lasting effects on women's hips and spines.
Though many had tried and failed to ban the practice, foot binding was finally outlawed in 1912 by the Republic of China. The ban was reiterated when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Though the Communist Party enforced the ban by threat of execution, the practice continued in secret in some remote areas.
When Farrell first visited China, she was completely unaware that some women with bound feet were still alive. A driver that Farrell had hired overheard her interest and introduced her to his grandmother, who had bound feet.
After that, Farrell found subjects through word of mouth and travelling to numerous villages in the countryside.
Most of the women that Farrell photographed were between 80 and 100 years old. Most had their feet bound after the practice was banned.
The majority of the women that Farrell photographed were peasant women from rural areas. They told Farrell that their mothers bound their feet to improve their marriageability.
'Bound feet were often seen as the best sign of a good wife, because it indicated that they were subservient, wouldn't run away, and wouldn't complain to her husband,' Farrell told Business Insider.
Even so, due to changing attitudes in Chinese society, most women with bound feet were forced to work in the fields despite the difficulty they had in walking.
Many of the women Farrell met were forced to bind their feet against their will. One woman told Farrell that her mother would cut slices of skin off her toes as punishment for unbinding their feet.
Another woman recalled being teased for having big feet at her grandfather's birthday party when she was a young girl. Immediately after the party, the girl's mother bound her feet.
Most Chinese people have shown little interest in Farrell's work. The practice of foot binding is something most would prefer to forget. They see it recalling a more 'backwards' time.
Many of those living in the same villages as Farrell's subjects didn't even know the women had bound feet. It is often not talked about.
Farrell hopes that her work raises awareness and understanding about the practice, which has been mostly forgotten at the Communist Party's behest.
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