While several stories exist as to how the practice of foot binding started, the most popular and credible says it began with Emperor Li Yu, who reigned during the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975 A.D.) It’s said his heart was captured by a concubine, Yao Niang, a talented dancer who bound her feet to suggest the shape of a new moon and performed a “lotus dance.”
Not only did this alter the shape of the foot, the practice also produced a particular sort of gait that relied on the thigh and glutes for support. From the start, foot binding was imbued with erotic overtones. “Certainly the ‘three-inch golden lotuses’ were seen as the ultimate erogenous zone, with Qing dynasty pornographic books listing 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet,” NPR writes.
The practice of foot binding thrived for 1,000 years until it was outlawed in 1912 after the revolution of Sun Yat-sen. However, women continued to bind their feet in secret in parts of China to attain an ideal of physical perfection. Beginning in 1915, government inspectors could levy fines on those who continued to do so.
British photographer Jo Farrell, based in Hong Kong, has documented for more than 10 years the last Chinese women with small feet, born from the tradition of foot binding in her book, Living History: Bound Feet Women of China.
Si Yin Zhin
90 YEARS OLD IN 2011: Si Yin’s feet were the most distorted that I have seen. To me, they no longer look like feet – they have taken the shape of the shoes. Her feet had never been unbound, and she had managed to keep them hidden.
Huo Guan Yu
89 YEARS OLD 2010, SHANDONG PROVINCE: Her sister taught her how to bind her feet when she was six years old, and they remained bound until 2010. When I asked her why she had decided to unbind her feet after so long, she said that it was because she now needs help with the binding and no one does it correctly.
Pue Hui Ying
76 YEARS OLD IN 2011, YUNNAN PROVINCE: Pue’s feet were bound at seven and were briefly unbound at 12 (in 1949), as was required at that time. Unbinding hurt as it forced the women to readjust the way they stood, and walk with broken toes. Because of this, Pue has kept her feet bound to this day. An avid bowler, she told me she travelled to Kunming once a month to take part in a tournament.
Zhang Yun Ying
103 YEARS OLD IN 2014, SHANDONG PROVINCE: “I met Zhang in November 2014. She claimed she was only 99. One of her daughters told me that Zhang felt anything older put her closer to death.”
Yang Jing é
87 YEARS OLD 2010, SHANDONG PROVINCE: Yang’s feet were bound when she was five years old by her grandmother.
- Unbound: China’s last ‘lotus feet’ – in pictures (theguardian.com)
- Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium (smithsonian.com)
- How Foot Binding Worked (howstuffworks.com)
- Footbinding, Sexuality and Transnational Feminism (space.library.uu.nl)