A Hong Kong photographer is on a quest to record the lives of the last women in China with bound feet before their stories of immense pain, suffering and perseverance die with them. Jo Farrell has already photographed and interviewed more than 50 elderly women – many of who have been crippled by the ancient and outlawed tradition – but needs your help to complete her valuable mission.
Most modern women would claim they suffer for beauty, whether it be wearing high heels, plucking eyebrows, waxing unmentionables or undergoing Botox and plastic surgery. But few can truly claim to have endured like generation-upon-generation of Chinese girls and women, forced to walk on broken feet their whole lives in order to secure a good husband.
Award-winning British photographer Jo Farrell has felt compelled to document things soon to be no-more since first catching the photography bug at Beijing’s hutongs in 1998. With their numbers steadily declining to make way for new roads and buildings, the narrow alleyways formed of traditional Siheyuan residences will soon live on only in the memory of those who saw them.
It is this resolve to record and preserve the world’s dwindling customs and cultures that led Jo to her Living History project, which aims to document the words and pictures of the few remaining women in rural China still living with the reality of foot binding. Armed with her trusty 503C Hasselblad and only black and white film – obsolete methods for an obsolete muse – Jo has been travelling from her now-home-city of Hong Kong to remote Chinese villages for the last seven years, relying on pure luck, networking and persuasion to find and photograph the women still carrying the scars of a dead tradition.
She now hopes to secure enough funding to complete her mission and have her work included in museums, submitted to academia and made into a coffee table book. Speaking to Localiiz in a last-ditch effort to reach her Kickstarter goal of US$8,000 before June 15th, Jo explained why she is so passionate about the subject.
“I want to celebrate these women’s lives. They’ve been through so much – bound feet, famine, cultural revolution. Most are now in their 80s and 90s and it’s getting difficult for them to remember, while several have passed away since I first met them. I want to make a record of these women before it’s too late, so future generations can see who they were and what their lives were like.”
Foot binding for most girls started at around age four, when the arches were still developing. Toes were curled under the sole, bound and forced downwards with great pressure until they broke, while the heel was bound towards the ball to form the desirable lotus shape.
Once the bones were broken, the feet were repeatedly bound more tightly, with lack of circulation and infection from ingrowing nails often causing the toes to drop off entirely. This was however seen as desirable, as the foot would then become even smaller. Girls with more stubborn toes would sometimes have shards of glass inserted under the nails to promote such infections.
Although seen at the time as a thing of great splendour, to the modern viewer, the sight of a bound foot is usually met with repulsion. While Jo reports that some of the feet she photographed were mangled beyond recognition, she confesses to being enchanted by the first naked bound foot she saw.
“I held her feet in my hand; they were so soft and there was some form of beauty in it. There are some women whose feet I photographed no longer look like feet – but the first one, her feet were lovely.”
Theories about the origins of foot binding are plentiful, but it is commonly accepted that it was first introduced just before the Song Dynasty by Emperor Li Yu, who asked his concubine to use white silk to constrict her feet into the shape of the crescent moon. What is known, is that bound feet rapidly became symbols of beauty and status, with a woman’s delicate swaying “lotus gait”, bought on by the reluctance to put any real pressure on the painful appendages, considered erotic to men and seen as a sign of female subservience.
Having evaded various attempts to ban it since 1664, the practice, often dubbed barbaric, only started to die out completely when it was forcibly stopped by the government in 1939. While some books and films explore the stories of elite women whose feet were bound as an expression of beauty, Jo claims that the peasant girls, whose families insisted on them undergoing the procedure in the hope of marrying them up the class ladder, have so far been silent to the world.
“Most of the books are about beautiful embroided shoes and the erotica of foot binding, but none of them really tell the stories of these poorer women,” said Jo, who says her subjects are like her own “little grandmothers”.
Coming full circle to talk again of her time at the hutongs when she first realised photography was her true passion, Jo, a former publisher, recalls a local man thanking her for taking an interest in the historic buildings, most of which were already earmarked for demolition.
“That was what stayed with me, that these things are disappearing before our eyes,” she said. “The photographer’s curse is that sometimes you see a shot and you don’t take it. It’s the shots I miss that I always think about.”