Last living women with bound feet

Updated 3:20 AM ET, Fri June 6, 2014
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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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
Portrait of Zhao Hua Hong. "There are Chinese people who criticize me for documenting bound feet. 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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
"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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
Portrait of Yang Jinge. The 91-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." courtesy Jo Farrell
Yang Jinge's feet. "In most cases that I came across in the villages, mothers bound the feet of their daughters, doing it out of love, as they hoped for a better marriage and a better life for their daughters," says Farrell. "About 50% of the feet that I saw were not done very well. A lot of the feet became disfigured and did not achieve the desired shape." Courtesy Jo Farrell
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." Courtesy Jo farrell
"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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
Close-up of Su Xi Rong's left foot forced into the desired shape. Courtesy Jo Farrell
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." Courtesy Jo Farrell
Yang went on to have two children and five grandchildren. "These women are really the backbone of today's China. 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. Courtesy Jo Farrell
Feet binding started in the Song dynasty and fell out of fashion in the early 20th century when it was banned by the government. "Body modification is in all cultures. 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. Courtesy Jo Farrell