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Cultural Progress
Lessons from a Bound Past
In this age of extreme body alteration, the history of bound-feet women serves as an invaluable warning
By Chen Ran & Sudeshna Sarkar | NO. 1 JANUARY 5, 2017

The Footbinding Culture Museum in Wuzhen, east China's Zhejiang Province (CHEN RAN)

When Wei Caibao was 10, she was forced to undergo terrible pain and mutilation as she entered the three-year period that was said to change a young girl's life forever. Millions of Chinese girls suffered the same fate for almost 1,000 years as parents sought to follow the socio-cultural trend of those times and ensure a secure future for their daughters.

Foot binding, a practice that started around the 10th or 11th century, persisted despite several attempts by governments, social organizations and individuals to stop it. It was only after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, women were recognized as equals and priority was given to education that the ban was enforced in earnest.

Today, victims like Wei are becoming a blurred page in history. But those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it and so, there are efforts to record what happened to ensure it does not happen again.

The Footbinding Culture Museum in Wuzhen, a picturesque water town in east China's Zhejiang Province, is such an initiative. It is not a place for the usual holiday revelers with their selfie sticks and running children. The dimly lit entrance and the rugged walls have a somber look to them. Small groups go from one display to another in near-silence, happy to come out of the cavernous halls.

For Wen Zhirong, coming here is an act of remembering history. "This is the third time I am visiting this museum," said the 50-year-old with the Women's Federation of Qingyuan, a city in south China's Guangdong Province. "Before I came here, I didn't know much about the custom. Now I look at it as an act meant to keep women confined to their homes and turn them into accessories for men."

Once the property of the Gui Tong Feng Fur Industry company, built in the early period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the rare museum, renovated in 2004, displays scores of exquisite, handmade shoes, so tiny that they look like young children's shoes. They were worn by adult women whose toe bones were systematically deformed so that the toes folded below the sole.

There is a comprehensive, and often chilling, account of the bygone culture, complete with details on how it became a yardstick of social status. "The museum displays a number of precious real objects and pictures offering a window of learning about footbinding history," an introductory panel says. "Without witnessing those pictures... we can never understand the... tears that Chinese women once had."

Wen regards the museum as an important historical record. "Footbinding was a part of history," she said. "Whether positive or negative, it remains part of history."

Women with bound feet in the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (XINHUA)

The myth

Like many damaging trends, footbinding probably began as a lighthearted innovation. According to the museum artefacts, Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang state during the Five Dynasties period (907-960) had a vivacious concubine called Yao Niang, who once danced so gracefully on her toe tips that she captivated the emperor and the whole court. Yao Niang had bound her feet with white silk to make them look slender and elongated like a lotus and that's how the custom caught on.

"At that time, footbinding was just a way of performing, whose purpose was to bend the natural feet into a crescent shape... It didn't cause injury to the human body." But later, people began to bind girls' feet painfully tight with cloth or silk to make them pointed and tiny permanently. The sought ideal was the "Three-cun Golden Lotus," where the feet would be no longer than three cun (3.3 cm).

"A pair of tiny feet causes a large amount of tears and shows the bitterness suffered by women," another exhibit label at the museum says.

As the custom spread, it became a sign of beauty and gentility. Women with unbound feet were looked down upon. Even Queen Ma Xiuying (1332-1382), a Ming Dynasty empress, was said to be the "laughing stock" of her subjects because she had unbound feet. It was said to have given rise to a Chinese idiom, "to expose one's unbound feet (lou majiao)," which meant to reveal a secret.

Bound feet were indeed a terrible secret. Women with bound feet wore shoes all the time, even in bed, to hide the grim reality of their tortured, disfigured feet.

Farrell's story

The secret was revealed to Jo Farrell when the British photographer went to a village near Shanghai in 2006 to meet Zhang Yunying, then a 78-year-old who was among the last footbinding women on the Chinese mainland.

"I always had an interest in woman's traditions and cultures that are dying out," the 50-year-old photographer, who lives in Hong Kong, said, narrating the first, moving encounter.

A chance taxi ride in Shanghai led to a conversation with the cabbie who said his mother had bound feet and agreed to take Farrell home to meet her. It moved Farrell since during her attempts to find women with bound feet, she had found people did not like to talk about the extinct custom."It's not spoken about," Farrell said. "Many people didn't know their grandmothers had bound feet. Today, the reaction is that it was a horrible tradition and thank god, it's ended. It's extremely important to recognize what these women went through."

At that first encounter with a bound-feet woman, when Zhang Yunying took off her shoes and Farrell held the septuagenarian's feet in her hands, she was moved again. "Before, I had judgment about why women bound their feet. I felt it was done for beauty and it was a horrible business. But that first meeting, I realized how much she had undergone. It was done not because they wanted to be beautiful. If they had not done it, they would not have got married. Young girls were taught to bow down to their family's wishes."

Since that meeting, Farrell began looking for other women and chronicling their stories. She interviewed 50 women, some of whom are no more today. A collection of the photographs appeared as an exhibition in Hong Kong last year, "Hidden History: Bound Feet Women of China."

Unlike a certain part of the bound-feet women, who came from rich aristocratic families and didn't have to work, Farrell has documented women mostly from rural areas. "When the practice was banned, it was first done aggressively in cities. Women in villages continued to bind their feet and were the last to do so." Farrell wants them to be part of history and explain to the world what happened to them.

Besides, as she sees it, it's not something that happened just in China once upon a time. Altering the body to meet what is regarded as the approved standard is a phenomenon affecting women—as well as men—across the globe even today.

"Cosmetic procedures are changing us globally," she pointed out. "Women are undergoing toe tucks so that they can wear pointy shoes, or breast augmentation. It's insane what we do to our bodies to make them look 'acceptable.' It's done in Australia, the United States, the UK. Men undergo body alterations too like extreme tattooing and piercing."

In Victorian England, for example, British women wore tight corsets to look slender. "It was insane," Farrell said. "There were lots of incidents of young women fainting. It was not because they were delicate but because the tight corsets trapped their internal organs. And that sort of extreme fashion is coming round again."

It's that specter which makes the little museum in Wuzhen and the history of the bound-feet women so important.

Comments to chenran@bjreview.com

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