Hong Kong-based photographer, Jo Farrell recently unveiled her “Living History: Bound Feet Women of China” photography project dedicated to documenting and celebrating the lives of the last remaining women in China with bound feet, now in their 80s and 90s. Although we have seen images depicting the practice or read about feet binding before, Jo Farrell’s black and white film photographs are striking and reveal moving stories of these women’s lives; their stories are at the same time disturbing and empowering the women walking on “lotus feet”.
Jo Farrell has been working on the project for the past 8 years, photographing and interviewing these women who live in rural areas of China, and has recently started a Kickstarter campaign in order to complete her work. Once finished, the photographer intends to print a book with the visual stories of these women’s lives. The book will likely an extremely useful addition to the current cultural and anthropological studies on Chinese traditions.
Records show that footbinding dates back to the Song dynasty (960 – 1279AD), although there are many legends concerning the birth of this habit. One of the legends says that Li Yu, who ruled China between 961-975 has fallen in love a dancer who bound her feet to look like a new moon and performed a ‘lotus dance’ – and that is how the “three-inch lotus feet” appeared. Over the following dynasties, footbinding became more and more popular among the rich and developed into being a sign of beauty and higher social status.
Here is a description of the practice of feet binding from The Atlantic, by Wang Ping, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Macalaster College and the author of “Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China”, a 2002 history of the practice:
“Girls would have their feet bound between the ages of four and six; any younger, the girls couldn’t endure the pain, and by the time they were older than six their feet had already grown too large. Four to six was the ideal age because you could reason with the girls and help them deal with the pain. Foot binding would occur in a ritualistic ceremony accompanied by other traditions intending to ward of bad luck.
The procedure entailed bending the girls’ toes underneath the sole, using very long ribbons to wrap their feet all the way to the ankle. Basically, the idea was to keep breaking the foot whenever it grew too large, a process that usually took between two and three years. Then the feet would be bound for the rest of the girl’s life.
The girls, naturally, developed a peculiar way of walking—almost as if they had hooves. And in order to facilitate moving around, women with bound feet developed strong muscles in their hips, thighs, and buttocks, so much so that these characteristics were considered physically attractive to the Chinese men of the era.”
Girls living in the countryside knew that binding their feet was the only way to marry a rich man. Although both the girls mothers and their mother-in-laws supported footbinding for centuries, the practice left many women with terrible disabilities and made them dependent on men.
The first anti-footbinding committee was formed in Shanghai by a British priest in 1874, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the practice was banned. By 1915 inspectors could issue fines to anyone who bound their feet. However, this practice continued to be illegally performed until 1939 in rural areas of China.
Jo Farrell explains on her project page that “Although considered fairly barbaric, feet-binding was a tradition that enabled women to find a suitable partner. Match-makers or mother-in-laws required their son’s betrothed to have bound feet as a sign that she would be a good wife (she would be subservient and without complaint).”
“In every culture there are forms of body modification that adhere to that cultures’ perception of beauty. From Botox, FGM, breast augmentation, scarring and tattooing, to rib removals, toe tucks and labrets.” she adds.
Moreover, the photographer wants to create “a visual and written history of these incredible women who have lived through famine, the cultural revolution (where people were penalized for the four olds: old habits, manners, custom, and culture) and family deconstruction / migration of the twentieth century. All of the women that I have included in this project to-date are peasant farmers working off the land in rural areas away from City life depicted so often in academia on foot binding. There was not the life of beautifully embroidered shoes and luxury lifestyles.”
Jo Farrell is an award-winning black and white documentary photographer and culture anthropologist, born in London, England. Her work has been published in numerous places including: the BBC news website, SilkRoad (Cathay Pacific), San Francisco Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, LIP Magazine, Creative Quarterly, and a 100-page book was published in 2006 “Jo Farrell Photographs”. Her awards include: Black & White Spider Award, Women in Photography Award, Centre for Fine Art Photography, and a Jacob Riis Award. Her work has been exhibited in London, New York, LA, Hong Kong, Denver CO and San Francisco.
By Andreea Dragut
[All images by Jo Farrell, via FastCompany]