It’s estimated that during the nineteenth-century foot binding was carried out on as high as 50 percent of China’s female population.
The cruel and barbaric practice saw girls as young as two have their bones and ligaments in their feet broken and bent to try and make them as small as possible. In some cases less than 3 inches long. The practice is thought to date back to the Song Dynatsy – around a 1000 years ago and was officially banned in 1911 after the fall of the Qing Dynatsy.
Although illegal, many parents and grandparents still bound their daughters and granddaughters feet in order for them to find a husband to marry. Young girls were still having their feet bound in 1958, years after it was outlawed.
Here are some of their stories…
I live by 3 simple principles.
Eat well. Play as much as possible. Always buy and wear beautiful clothes.
I was born in 1931 so this year I am 88 years old. I am originally from Hebei but I now live in Beijing. I have lived here for around 4 years.
I much preferred Beijing before as it was much more lively but not so much now. My hometown isn’t a huge city but it’s much more lively than Beijing these days.
I have 5 children, 3 boys and 2 girls. I also have 9 grandchildren.
My father arranged my marriage at the age of 21 which was much later than other ladies of that time. I didn’t know my husband but my dad picked him as he was the only child in his family and thought it would be easier. Fewer children in a family, fewer problems that family might have.
I remember on my wedding day, I wore the most beautiful red dress embroidered with gold lace.
When I was 4 years old my mum died. I had two older sisters who helped take care of me when I was growing up.
My mum had bound feet and my sisters also had bound feet. Although my feet are not small they are still deformed from when my sisters and myself tried to make them smaller, especially the bone by my big toe.
I didn’t go to school which made my father very angry. I refused to go as I really enjoyed learning how to make clothes and shoes. My next door neighbor took the time and effort to teach me.
My father owned a small grocery shop and, after my mum died, he married 3 other ladies. In total, he married 4 times. As a family, we have experienced a lot of sad times due to deaths within our family.
Binding my feet was extremely painful and at the time it was illegal. Although my sisters and mothers’ feet were completely bound and very small, after a while we stopped binding my feet to make them small but instead used cloth to tightly wrap the toes together to try and make them smaller.
This created open wounds and they began to fester and turn bad so, eventually, we stopped. I can’t remember for exactly how long we did this for.
I’ve always thought this made feet ugly without shoes but bound feet with shoes look rather nice. We also stop binding my feet as it was growing very unpopular in China to have very small feet.
Around the age of 22 in about 1951 I remember being really happy. I had just married and we were planning on having children and what we would do for the rest of our lives together.
I had a lot of freedom but things slowly changed for the worst. There was never enough food and there was no money. I lost around 80 kg and I was so skinny that you could see each bone and I was sick and really disrupted my period.
Eventually, I ended up selling things like clothes and jewellery to buy basics but things soon ran out. We’d never have meat, eggs or sugar to eat but we survived on weeds from the pond and the husk from the corn we grew.
We worked hard. We had no choice. We work for very little or no pay. The harder we worked the higher our score, if our score were high then they may have given us 1 or 2 fen for that day. Any food we grow we passed onto the government.
At night I would take a gas lamp in one hand and a bag of corn in the other. I’d take the corn and grind it up to make flour. I used to grind up the core and husk to make more food for us to eat. If we had any sweet potato I used to make a sweet substance to give to the kids, like a kind of candy and old clothes would be recycled to make shoes.
Nothing was wasted and everything we could use we’d use. I really hate wasting food and other things.
During these years my main job was looking after the children, attending to the land and watching bikes in a lot to ensure they weren’t stolen. My father at this time owned a shop selling products made of steel but he had to slowly hand everything over to the government like other people in a joint effort to improve China.
At 86 my husband passed away after 8 years of being bedridden. I looked after him day in and day out to ensure his last few years were as comfortable and happy as can be.
These days I can’t really remember things that have happened recently but I remember things that happened before a long time ago. Before I retired I had a dream. I was wearing red clothes, an unlucky symbol in China. The next day I was using sheers to cut grass and I cut the top of my thumb off. That was painful.
I have travelled a lot around China and last year my son and daughter in law took me to Japan for a holiday. Now I am older I need to try and keep myself healthy. I sleep less and play more.
Each afternoon I play Mahjong and in the evening I play cards and use a couple of coins to bet. I really love to chat and I love to see people happy. If the people I am around are happy then I am happy too.
88 years old
These ladies have lived a tough life. They have seen huge changes and experienced a lot. They are the very last of their kind and within the next 10 years it might be impossible to find a lady with bound feet. For now, I think we can all agree and are glad that this culture and tradition no longer happens.