British photographer Jo Farrell is documenting a tradition that is dying out with China’s oldest women: foot binding.
The process of binding feet (also known as “lotus feet”) started before the arch had a chance to fully develop – somewhere between the ages of 4 and 9.
After soaking in warm herbs and animal blood, the toes would be curled over to the sole of the foot and bound with cotton bandages.
The toes and arch would be broken with force. Unbound. Rebound. Rebound tighter. And repeat.
It was considered better to get someone who wasn’t your mum to do it: They were less likely to bind them sympathetically loose.
The tradition is thought to have originated among the upper-class court dancers in Imperial China around the 10th century before spreading to the lower classes.
Since it affected their ability to walk, it came to be seen as a sign of wealth – the wealthiest of people didn’t need to walk or work in fields.
There were various attempts to ban the tradition from the 1600s, but it didn’t die out until the early 20th century.
“At every opportunity I asked if anyone knew of any old ladies. A driver finally said that he had overheard the conversation and that his grandmother had bound feet. I arranged to go meet his grandmother (Zhang Yun Ying, pictured) in a remote village in Shandong Province.”
“A couple of her friends also had bound feet but they declined to be part of the project.”
“I got some photographs of them sitting around eating watermelon and chatting. I published the photographs in an exhibition catalogue to coincide with an exhibit I did at Hoopers Gallery in London in 2006.
I sent each of the ladies a copy of the catalogue and when I returned to Shandong Province in 2007, they all said they wanted to be included in the next book.”
“My translator’s grandmother (Su Xi Rong, pictured) also had bound feet and lived 60km away. So I went to her home and she became part of the project too.”
“I have found women through word of mouth, even by driving past an old lady.”
“I realised she had bound feet and stopped the taxi and ran after to her to ask if I could go home with her and photograph her feet.”
“This generation of women have lived through incredible times: through foot binding, the Cultural Revolution, Japanese invasion, and the Great Famine.”
“Once they were praised for the size and shape of their feet.”
“But they have also gone through a long period where they were vilified and made to feel ashamed and embarrassed by the very same tradition.”
“The practice of binding feet was not only considered beautiful, it was considered necessary in order to get married and to have a better life.”
“When I ask them if they could go back, whether they would have their feet bound again, the majority of them say no.”
“But this is largely because as peasant farmers during these harsh times they had to work in the fields rather than be sedentary.”
“They always point out, and I believe it is with a sense of pride, that their feet were much smaller.”