Big lives, small feet: Photographing China's bound women

By Josephine McDermott
BBC News

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionZhang Yun Ying was the first woman Jo Farrell photographed, in 2006

Decades after foot-binding was outlawed in China, a British photographer has met some of the last women subjected to the practice.

It was with a sense of pride that Su Xi Rong revealed her feet to British photographer Jo Farrell.

Her feet, bound from the age of seven, were so small that she had been renowned for their beauty.

The 75-year-old is among the last remaining women in China to bear the effects of foot-binding, a practice first banned in 1912.

Farrell met more than 50 of them over an eight-year period, and says she was surprised to find stories of pride and empowerment. Her book about the women is being launched at the British Council in Hong Kong on Monday.

Foot-binding was believed to create a more beautiful foot and promote obedience.

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionSu Xi Rong said she was renowned for her small, "correctly formed" beautiful feet

Despite a ban, it carried on in many rural areas until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966.

Travelling in Shandong and Yunnan provinces, Farrell found grandmothers who were happy to show the effects created by years of strapping their toes under their feet.

"I feel so many people talk about how barbaric the tradition was, but it was also a tradition that empowered women," Farrell says.

"It gave them a better life. They were doing the best for themselves."

Because of feudal traditions, women with large feet were not likely to get married.

Matchmakers picked women who had bound feet because it showed they could "tolerate" pain and "she would not complain as a wife," explains Farrell.

"I think one of the most important things that came across was that they have a pride in what happened to them.

"Most of them told me or showed me how their feet had been much smaller before," she said.

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionGirls' toes were strapped under their feet and would break over time
image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionThe arch would lift so that a woman's heel would almost touch the metatarsals, creating a cavern
image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionHaving bound feet showed you would "not complain as a wife", Jo explains

Su Xi Rong recalled how her grandmother would catch her trying to remove the strappings from her feet as a child and punish her by slicing flesh off her toes.

But when Farrell arrived with her Hasselblad camera Su Xi Rong was proud to pose for photos.

"She was happy to show me her feet because she was known as the woman with the most beautiful feet in the village."

Most of the women are in their eighties and nineties, and several have passed away since they were photographed.

"It feels good to get their stories down before they disappear," says Farrell.

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionShao Feng Rong remembered being called home from playing to have her feet bound at the ages of six
image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionA lot of the women appreciated someone coming to find out their stories, the photographer said

Not all women had an adult forcing the binding on them.

"I would say about 40% of the women bound their own feet, which I found quite surprising," says Farrell.

"They wanted to be like other girls. Some women said they knew how to do it because they had seen their mothers do it."

Over a period of time, the small bones in the toes would break beneath the weight and the foot arch would lift so that a woman's heel would almost touch the metatarsals.

Jo found those who felt resentful did so because they had had to work in the fields.

"It would have been much easier to do if they hadn't had bound feet," she said.

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionSi Yin Zhin, aged 90, had six children

She says a lot of the women confided they would not bind their feet if they could "have their time again".

From 1949, when the Communist Party came to power, the women found their feet, the products of imperial sensibilities, were now the focus of scorn.

"These women went through a very hard time," says the photographer.

"Originally they were praised for their bound feet but then by 1949 it became something that they were embarrassed about and ashamed of. To go through both of those things in one lifetime is incredible."

Today, she says the elderly women she found were "spritely", and says she was surprised by their mobility.

"On a few occasions I had to search the village for the ladies. They were visiting other ladies or looking after grandchildren.

Most of her subjects she found through word of mouth.

The first woman she photographed, Zhang Yun Ying, was the mother of a taxi driver.

Farrell also became adept at spotting the gait of women with bound feet, once stopping a taxi and getting out because she spotted a woman walking in the street.

"They tend to walk on their heels," Farrell says.

image copyrightJo Farrell
image captionJo Farrell with Cao Yei Ming, who was reluctant to let her leave

She found in a lot of cases younger relatives had never asked their grandmothers about their bound feet, or seen them naked.

Some young people were reluctant to let China be shown "in a bad light".

She said the project taught her a lot about old age and how the women seemed to be "invisible". Often they appreciated someone coming to see them to find out their stories.

Interviewing 87-year-old Cao Mei Ying, Farrell said she could not understand what the lady was saying to her - but that she held onto her tightly.

She asked her translator, who said: "She doesn't want you to leave."

Cao Mei Ying died in 2013.

"I made her feel special and remembered," recalls Farrell. "That her path in this life had meant something."

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