Hong Kong CNN It was an excruciatingly painful practice that maimed the feet of millions of Chinese girls and women for centuries: foot-binding. Chat with us in Facebook Messenger.
Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds. More Videos Living with bound feet Tiny "golden lotus" feet -- achieved through breaking girls' toes and arches and binding them to the sole of the foot with cloth -- were thought to be a passport to a better marriage and a better way of life. They were thought to be attracted to small feet," said Laurel Bossen, co-author of the new book "Bound feet, Young hands. But Bossen's research suggests that the custom has been massively misunderstood.
Girls who had their feet bound didn't lead a life of idle beauty but rather served a crucial economic purpose, especially in the countryside, where girls as young as 7 weaved, spun and did work by hand, Bossen said. Read More. Foot-binding persisted for so long because it had a clear economic rationale: It was a way to make sure young girls sat still and helped make goods like yarn, cloth, mats, shoes and fishing nets that families depended upon for income -- even if the girls themselves were told it would make them more marriageable.
Bossen says women weren't shy about talking about or showing their bound feet, making her skeptical that it was an erotically charged fetish. A woman with yellow embroidered shoes in Yunnan, China. Footbound women did valuable handwork at home in cottage industries.
The image of them as idle sexual trophies is a grave distortion of history," said Bossen. Foot-binding persisted because it ensured that young girls sat still and worked at a boring, sedentary task for many hours each day, she said, and it died out only when manufactured cloth and foreign imports eliminated the economic value of handwork. Bossen, professor emerita of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, and Hill Gates, who holds the same post at Central Michigan University, interviewed just under 1, elderly women in several locations across rural China -- the last generation to have bound feet -- to pinpoint when and why the practice began to decline.
They found that foot-binding endured longest in areas where it still made economic sense to produce goods like cloth at home and began to decline only when cheaper factory-made alternatives became available in these regions. Photos: Last living women with bound feet.
Last living women in China with bound feet — Jo Farrell is a Hong Kong-based photographer who focuses on female traditions that are dying out. In the past eight years, she has photographed 50 women with bound feet in rural China. Most live in an area two hours outside of Jinan, Shandong province. Here we see Zhao Hua Hong's feet. Hide Caption. They emphasize that this is the 'old China' and question who will benefit from documenting this horrible thing of the past.
They want to forget about it. But this is history. Just because we don't like it doesn't mean we shouldn't document it," says Farrell. Last living women in China with bound feet — Zhang Yun Ying was the first woman with bound feet that Jo Farrell photographed. Several of the women documented by Farrell have since passed away. Last living women with bound feet — "She took her shoes off and I held her foot in my hand and it was just so soft.
It just felt beautiful. She had really suffered for this. It touched me — what we as women will go through to have a better life," says Farrell about Zhang Yun Ying.
Last living women in China with bound feet — Portrait of Yang Jinge. The year-old woman told Farrell: "Bound feet was a disrespect for the body, sometimes it was too painful and I couldn't go away to another village or to school. Bound feet is blind faith -- it was believed it would help us have a better marriage but when I had my feet bound it was already such an old tradition and was not a part of modern China.
Last living women in China with bound feet — Yang Jinge's feet. A lot of the feet became disfigured and did not achieve the desired shape. Last living women in China with bound feet — Farrell says: "Most books out there cover the eroticism of bound feet or the history of it.
They don't really discuss the woman as a human being. I want to humanize the phenomenon. These women had incredible lives, even though they were peasants. Not only did they have bound feet, they lived through famine and the Cultural Revolution, and now they have to deal with the break-up of the traditional family structure and village life as young people move away to cities for jobs.
Last living women in China with bound feet — "Su Xi Rong had the most beautiful feet in her village. Her feet had the ideal shape, which not only has the toes wrapped, but also the heel compressed towards the toes to create a crevice in the arch of the foot that was considered highly erotic for the husband," says Farrell.
Last living women in China with bound feet — Close-up of Su Xi Rong's left foot forced into the desired shape. Last living women in China with bound feet — Many women Farrell photographed were too old to remember much from their childhood. But one woman, Yang Yu Ying, now 79 years old, was able to recall the time before her feet were bound: "When I was 11 years old I was at my grandfather's birthday. There were delicious foods and everything was going well until my aunt said my feet were very ugly, that they were so big just like a boy.
When my mother bound my feet I didn't cry. But at night when I lay in bed I cried. The feet were bleeding and infected for one year. I washed it with water. After a year the pain went away and I could walk again. Last living women in China with bound feet — Yang went on to have two children and five grandchildren. But they come from a generation where it is difficult for them to see themselves as individuals. They don't see their story as important -- they don't matter, they are forgotten women," says Farrell.
Last living women in China with bound feet — Feet binding started in the Song dynasty and fell out of fashion in the early 20th century when it was banned by the government. We all do something to make ourselves more attractive or to help us feel better.
Today, we see surgical toe tucks to beautify the foot, rib removal to make the waist smaller," says Farrell. Girls began hand spinning yarn as young as 6 or 7 -- roughly the same ages as when their feet were bound. The women they spoke to made the connection between the two:.
At around age 10, I started to spin cotton. Each time she bound my feet, it hurt until I cried," one woman who was born in told the researchers. Foot-binding dates to the Song dynasty and spread from court circles to wealthy elites and eventually from the city to the countryside. By the 19th century, it was commonplace across China. It began to decline in the early years of the 20th century, with its demise usually attributed to ideological campaigns led by missionaries and reformers, and subsequent moves by the Nationalist government followed by the Communists to ban the practice.
Bossen said she spoke to women born as late as the s whose feet had been bound for a short time. An elderly woman with bound feet sits by a basket in Yunnan, China. Bossen said her research offers lessons for the modern fight against other customs that are damaging to women and girls -- such as female genital mutilation, or FGM. Some academics like Gerry Mackie and Kwame Anthony Appiah have drawn lessons about the eradication of foot-binding and tried to apply them to genital cutting. They believe FGM could be eradicated by educational campaigns and forming groups to explain the damage done by the practice.
But Bossen said they might be drawn to the wrong course of action. Her research suggests it was economic factors not campaigns waged by religious groups and reformers that ultimately sounded the death knell for bound feet.