Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell has spent a decade travelling to mainland China to document the last few surviving women who underwent the centuries old Chinese practice of foot binding. The resulting exhibition, Bound Feet Women of China, is now open at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science.
“I have been living in and out of Asia for the last 25 years and am fascinated by the culture here. Back in 2006, I decided to focus my photography on female traditions. My first thought was of the Chinese women who bound their feet. Novels Wild Swans (Jung Chang, 1991) and Life & Death in Shanghai (Nien Cheng, 1987) first introduced me to foot binding and I guessed there must still be a few women alive who had undergone this process. Foot binding was outlawed in the early twentieth century, but the practice persisted in rural areas until the late 1940s.
“I started to ask around amongst my contacts in mainland China and eventually came across a driver who said his grandmother had bound feet. She became the first woman to feature in the project.
“Since then, mainly through word-of-mouth, I have discovered more women. Most are from Shandong Province and also Yunnan and Shaanxi.
“Like most people, I had preconceptions about foot binding. But when I held a bound foot in my hands for the first time, it was so soft and beautifully structured that I realised how much the women must have gone through to obtain what was considered at the time to be beautiful. The practice of foot binding resonated with me as even today, we place increasing value on the way someone looks rather than the actual substance of a person; whether they are fundamentally good, supportive, creative, interesting, passionate and so forth.
“Traditionally, foot binding would begin with the toenails being clipped and then the feet being soaked in hot water to soften the tissue and bones to facilitate the manipulation. All the toes on the foot, except the big one, were then folded under the sole and the toes bound in place with a long cotton cloth bandage. One way to physically encourage foot reduction was by swapping the girl’s shoes for a smaller, tighter pair every few months. Many of the women told me that the cotton bindings were sewn in place to stop the child removing the bandage. They were forced to regularly walk so that their own weight crushed their toes underneath them. In the early years, the washing and binding was carried out by the mother. As time passed, the girls themselves tightened the bandages on their own. Many of the women in this project chose to bind their own feet as their mothers refused to do it; when asked why they said they did it to ‘fit in’ with their friends and to ensure they had good marriage prospects. Some of the women only had their feet bound for a short length of time before it was outlawed but the damage had already been done. There were no formal guidelines for foot-binding and the feet were often bound in inelegant ways.
“Foot binding represents ‘old China’ and most of the women I spoke with condoned the practice. It impeded their ability to work and to provide food for their family during the cultural revolution and ensuing great famine. But having bound feet was imperative to finding a good matrimonial match and the smaller and more well-formed the bound foot, the more options were available to women. When the feet were unbound, the foot naturally spread and the women I spoke with were eager to convey, with what I believe was pride, that they once had feet two or three inches smaller than they are now. I think it is important that they feel their efforts were not in vain and I hope my photographs come across as both meaningful and beautiful.
“When I give lectures about foot binding I talk about what we consider to be beauty and how it differs in every culture. My work is about the the limits women will go to to be accepted in their own society.
“Over the past 13 years I have visited some of these women every year. I follow through and find out how their lives are progressing. I really enjoy my visits, it feels like I have an army of grandmothers out there. I share meals with them and drink lots of tea. We enjoy our time together.”
Bound Feet Women of China, Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science, 2 Caine Lane, Sheung Wan (behind Man Mo Temple), until April 1, jofarrell.com.