In far-flung corners of China, some centenarian women are still choosing to partake in the outmoded and painful practice of foot-binding, years after it was outlawed.
They are the last living people to bind their feet in the name of habits built during long-forgotten times when certain archaic beauty models prevailed – and their generation represents the last vestiges before controversial cultural tradition dies out.
But, as with all of us, these women – mothers and grandmothers many times over now – are more than meets the eye.
Six women who have lived through a century of comings and goings have unbound their feet, and reflected on their status as symbols of a life long lost to the history books, as part of the project, Humans of China.
Cameron Hack, the photographer who has collected more than 200 stories over six months, tells UNILAD the women who made manifest this tradition should not be forgotten, even though the evidence of it will soon be condemned to the past.
Foot-binding began during the Song Dynasty, when the emperor was said to take a liking to a young woman with small feet.
From then, manipulating the bones and flesh of female feet to make them smaller continued in earnest for around 1,000 years until China’s cultural revolution in the 60s and 70s.
It is still practiced by some today.
A 92-year-old shoe-maker (pictured above) from a village in Yúnnán, a province of the People’s Republic of China known for its ethnic and geographical diversity, said she started binding her feet with her mother at aged 6, not out of choice, but out of perceived necessity in finding a husband.
Ms Liu – who chose to not be named in full, like the other women – recalled:
Binding my feet was so painful. I remember I’d cry a lot and if no one was looking I would take off the bandages and re-wrap them lightly to release the pain.
If I was caught I would be in trouble and then I’d have to use a needle and thread to sow the bandages together so I couldn’t easily undo them.
This isn’t unusual, according to the six accounts shared with UNILAD and historical documentation. All but one of the six women whose stories are told here had their feet bound before they turned 10.
The exception, Ms Dong, was just 11.
Her children aside – one of whom she was forced to give up through poverty – she says she doesn’t really have any happy memories. The woman (pictured below) walks with two canes now.
The mother-of-four from Inner Mongolia said:
To this day I still use long pieces of cloth that I make to bind them.
I used to know many ladies with small feet but they have all since passed away and I think I might be the only lady left here with bound feet.
I don’t let others see my feet as I think they are ugly and it’s a private thing for me.
Each woman shares a universally painful recollection of foot-binding, a practice enforced by their mothers or female carers.
Another woman from Inner Mongolia, Ms Zhang (pictured below), recalled meeting her husband of an arranged marriage for the first time on their wedding day, upon which moment, her betrothed looked at her feet before her face.
The couple, now 87 years old respectively, have enjoyed a happy marriage of nearly seven decades, she told Cameron, adding her husband is a ‘kind and gentle’ man who ‘really cares’ for his family.
Ms Zhang recalled:
I started to bind my feet at around eight years old. My mum made me and she would help me at first.
She told me when I was crying and in pain that if I didn’t have small feet then no one would want to marry me. My younger sister didn’t have to bind her feet, she was lucky.
There is no pain in my feet now but I remember I often cried and couldn’t sleep well. I would try and avoid walking but crawl around on my knees instead.
I think my feet are ugly and it was and is very inconvenient. Today I still wrap them up as if I don’t I find it hard to walk.
Like Ms Zhang, some women still bind their feet either through habit, or at the request of their husbands, as well as for fear of the pain caused when their mangled feet are exposed and unbound.
Only one, Ms Gao, whose feet were broken at the age of five through binding, says she was indoctrinated to believe the pain worthwhile to achieve the unusual aesthetic.
Amazingly, she’s still smiling.
The almost-80-year-old grandmother, who sells sweets for a living, said:
It was ever so painful making my feet small but luckily there isn’t any pain now. There was no blood but the process did break the bones in my feet.
At that time I didn’t really care about the pain, as there wasn’t much I could have done anyway. I wanted to make my feet small.
When I was younger a few foreigners visited our village to tell us we could no longer bind our feet.
I don’t know where they were from but we didn’t listen to them anyway.
When they were here we took off the bandages and told them we would stop but as soon as they had gone I wrapped my feet back up.
The Chinese government first tried to end the practice of foot-binding in 1911, long before she was born, but failed.
In 1949, with the founding of the de facto one-party state and the Communist Party of China, another bid to ban binding was successful in principle but the entrenched practice continued for many like Ms Gao.
At its most prominent, around half of all the women in China had their feet bound in accordance with the popularity of small feet.
The aesthetic partly came to prominence as popular wisdom stated a woman with small feet was inhibited in her movement and so was more likely to stay at home to cook, clean, make clothes and look after children.
Another debated explanation suggests women with bound feet walk in a way which makes their hips and thighs tighter. This was interpreted by public opinion to imply – incorrectly – muscles in their vaginas are tighter and so intercourse would be more enjoyable.
The last recorded case in which a girl began foot binding was in 1957 rural China – but Cameron tells UNILAD he met a South Chinese woman who started to bind her feet at the age of eight in 1958.
The falling out of fashion of foot-binding means most modern metropolitan Chinese people have never met a woman with forcibly small feet.
Of one eye-opening trip to Beijing, Ms Gao said:
People were very interested in talking and taking photos of me. I don’t think there are many old ladies with small feet left in Beijing or China so when people see a lady like me they are very curious.
Previously people have wanted to take photos of me and my feet but I always told them to stop if I didn’t look my best but they always told me I look beautiful.
People would run as fast as they could to get in front of me to take a photo. I didn’t really mind them taking photos though they always seemed happy to see me and were polite and kind even if we couldn’t understand each other at times.
Other women agree, and were not surprised when Cameron came knocking, wanting to document their stories with his camera.
Despite the curiosity towards bound feet, the reality he uncovered is not something you’d necessarily want to document in your holiday photo album.
One Beijing-born woman, Ms Li (pictured below), who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, says it is born of a culture in which women were disrespected.
In comparison with the other milestones of her harrowing account of the last century in China, foot-binding was merely a drop in the ocean of Ms Li’s experience.
Documenting the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, then her father, then her husband, she recalls how it all began with foot-binding at the age of seven.
She – like many critics – puts it down to an objectification and dehumanisation of women.
The craftswoman and now bed-bound former homemaker said:
This year I am 100 years old so I’ve lived for a long time and have seen a lot. We started to make my feet small when I was seven. I didn’t agree but had no choice.
Back then I don’t think men had respect for women but there was nothing I could do.
My dad also hit me when I was younger and I’d feel dizzy and faint. If I didn’t faint then out of frustration I’d hit myself as I couldn’t hit him back.
Ms Li also lived through a Japanese military occupation of her hometown, fleeing to the forest and then making a meagre living growing millet on the local farms.
Like the other women, hers has been a life of relative poverty in which mothers sacrificed both physically and emotionally for children, some of whom didn’t survive the harsh times, with no medicine or education. All the women were unable to go to school.
One woman, who started binding at the young age of four, found solace in dancing in the village in which she was born and has never left.
However, the unnaturally restricted growth of her feet meant Ms Pu (pictured above) couldn’t dance without pain up until her death last year.
Before she died, the Yúnnán-born creative told Cameron:
Even though my feet are really small and always have been, I used to be able to dance alongside some other ladies with bound feet in a dance troop for tourists who visited our village.
This year I am 89 years old and I started to bind my feet at the age of four with the help of my mum. I didn’t agree but I had no choice and at that time and I didn’t really understand.
I’ve never stopped binding my feet and I still wrap them in cloth today.
Back then it was very painful but now it doesn’t hurt at all but these days I can’t walk. I use wheelchair to help me move around and I live with my son and his wife who care for me.
I used to have lots of friends and they all had bound feet but nowadays there aren’t many who are still alive. A lot of them have died.
The mother-of-five had been able to sell a pair of shoes she no longer wore for 100 yuan to make a living, on top of the small sum the government allocate their elderly.
These six women have undoubtedly been caused pain by a beauty marker which paid no regard to their well-being.
While some still feel a tragic sense of shame, others embrace the entirety of their complicated histories – and that of their country.
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Part 1 Very soon I'll be 100 but even in my old age, I'm not happy. I am scared of dying, but I also don't feel like I want to live any longer. I feel like I am a burden on my family and they think it's very troublesome to take care of me. I have 3 children – 2 girls and 1 boy. Once I was no longer able to cook or clean my daughter told me I can no longer stay with her and that'd I would have to move in with my son. When my daughter told me this my daughter-in-law was very angry because she also thought that my daughter should take care of me. So now, I live with my son and his wife, but they don't treat me so well. This arrangement has caused much contention and arguments, and I no longer see my daughters. Just a couple of days ago I took a walk to one of their houses. It was a really big struggle. I knocked on her door but my daughter wouldn't let me in. I went to see her as my back causes me a lot of pain, even to cough is an agony. I wanted to ask her to help me, to buy me some medicine, but she refused. My daughters live very close to me and when they were younger, I did a lot for them, but now, they do nothing for me. I feel like no one really cares about me now, even though I have a big family consisting of 5 generations. This makes me sad, so when people do visit me like my nieces or nephews, I feel very happy. We all make mistakes and I know that in the past I haven't been perfect. I do have a bad temper and I used to get angry very easily and still, sometimes these days I can still lose my temper. I am old now and I would hope that these mistakes that were made can be put behind us, but that's not the case and each day I suffer. Before, even with small feet, I was very able. Everything from cooking to cleaning, making clothes, farming and raising children – which was hard work, but not a problem. Now that I am older, most of the things I could have done, I can no longer do. I need a lot of help. #Humansofchina #人在中国 #China #中国 #Chinese #Chinesepeople #中国人 #People #Peoplewatching #Humans
However, one thread which sews together the lives of all these women is their hope and gratitude which gave them strength to overcome.
As children, their toes were bent backwards, pressed downwards and squeezed into the sole of small shoes to create their so-called ‘lotus feet’.
Over time, the bones in the toes would break under the weight and the foot arch would rise to the extent that the heel would almost touch the metatarsals.
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I am one of the last remaining ladies in Beijing with bound feet, and probably the oldest. My mum started to bind my feet at the age of six. The bones in the feet are still soft then, so it's a good time to start the process. I didn't really know what was happening, but I trusted and listened to my mother. Back then, all women had bound feet so it was a pretty normal thing. I used white cloth to bind them from the age of six up to the liberation of China in 1949, when I released them. My feet used to be smaller. In old age, I am happy and healthy, and I have my family around to look after me. For my 100th birthday, we had a big party in our village with all my family. I'd never ever thought that I'd make it to this age as life before was tough, with no food for years and lots of hard work. At about the age of nine, the Red Army and the National Army were fighting around our village. We had to run away into the mountains, where we found a cave and hid away. That was one of the scariest times of my life. I never had the chance to go to school, only boys had that chance back then. If you were rich, you could have hired a private teacher to educate children but we were too poor. Girls stayed at home and had to learn to make shoes and clothes. If you couldn’t make or mend clothes or shoes, it would have been hard to find a husband to marry. I married at the age of 16. I was the youngest girl in our village to marry at that time. My family arranged it for me, and the day I married was the day I met my husband. I think he knew that I had bound feet but he didn't see them until our wedding day. After we married, my job was to look after him and his family – to cook, clean, make clothes and make shoes. I made my current shoes myself, but a while ago. I made a few pairs in advance as, nowadays, my eyes aren't good and my hands shake. But I am happy. I now have the chance wear beautiful clothes and eat well. Beijing #Humansofchina #人在中国 #China #中国 #Chinese #Chinesepeople #中国人 #People #Peoplewatching #Humans
But as women, they are not defined by victimhood. You can’t judge a book by its cover so simply.
Despite tough lives, which are showing physically and emotionally in old age – from bad hips appeased by caring families to bed-bound lonely days – they are all grateful for small moments of happiness.
While Ms Li decries the boredom of her 100-year-old age, and the restrictions which come with it, she is happy to be safe in her hospital bed and away from the conflict she’s lived through.
Ms Zhang is simply happy to have watched her children grow.
Ms Dong, likewise, looks forward to her birthday when her young relatives visit.
Ms Liu hopes to live long enough to meet her great-grandchildren and is happy to have a comfortable life with three good meals a day.
Ms Gao wants to stand in the oceans of Hainan and cool her aching feet.
If you have a story you want to tell, share it with UNILAD via [email protected]