April 16, 2012

LIUYI, China — Bathed in a faint afternoon sunlight that seems to highlight every wrinkle on her face and hands, Fu Huiying hobbles around her dusty home. Nearby, chopped vegetables suggest a dinner half-made, and the smoke of years of cooking has stained the wall behind a small gas stove.

But the eyes are drawn to Fu’s deformed feet and the tiny, ornate shoes on the floor next to her, both objects marking the 76-year-old as one of the last of a kind.

For almost a millennium, the practice of foot binding was prevalent across Chinese society, starting with the wealthier classes but over the years spreading down through urban and then poorer rural communities. Now the ancient, some say barbaric, practice is almost gone.

Isolated from the country’s key cultural and administrative hubs, the area around Liuyi, a village of about 2,000 people in southern China’s Yunnan province, was one of the last places in the country to end the tradition.

A decade ago, there were more than 300 women like Fu in the village. Now there are just 30, by her reckoning, and because they are all elderly, they rarely come down to the village center, where they once gathered to dance and hand-sew the doll-size shoes they wore.

“Before the [Communist takeover in 1949], all of the girls in the village had to bind their feet. If they didn’t do this, no man would marry them,” says Fu, sitting on a wooden stool in her dusty home on the outskirts of the village, her feet unwrapped.

The feet of girls as young as 5 would be broken and bound tightly with cotton strips, forcing their four smallest toes to gradually fold under the soles to create a so-called 3-inch golden lotus, once idealized as the epitome of beauty.

The process would take many years and would lead to a lifetime of labored movement, as well as a regular need to rebind the feet.

The practice fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, viewed as an antiquated and shameful part of imperialist Chinese culture, and was officially banned soon after. But in rural areas, the feet of some young girls were still being bound into the early 1950s. In Liuyi, the practice didn’t stop until around 1957.

“I started the process in 1943 when I was 7,” says Fu, who smiles at the memory of those youthful days. “At the beginning it hurt with every move I made, but I agreed to go on with the process because it is what every girl my age did.

“My mother had bound feet, and her mother, and her mother,” she says, trailing off, unsure just how many generations it went back.

Yang Yang, who was born in Liuyi, says his late mother was one of the last women in the village to let out her feet, loosening the daily bindings so that they would become less restrictive.

Yang, who lives in the nearby town of Tonghai, has written two books telling the stories of his mother and the women of the village. His mother died in 2005.

“In ancient China, men preferred women with small feet, and in a male-dominated society where the best a woman could do was marry well, the reality was that what men wanted, men got,” he says.

Foot binding was also a strong multi-generational tie for women, with the procedure performed by the women in a family.

“It was a strong tradition passed from mother to daughters, entangled with shoemaking, how to endure pain and how to attract men. In many ways, it underpinned women’s culture,” says Dorothy Ko, a history professor at Barnard College in New York and author of “Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding.”

“It is hard to romanticize the practice and I am happy to see it go, but it is a pity there is no comparable, but obviously less painful, practice to take its place and bond generations,” Ko says.

In Liuyi, even after the practice was banned, Fu says, she and others were hesitant to stop tightly binding their feet and hid them from officials, worried that the ban would be temporary. They also viewed their bound feet as desirable and something to be proud of.

“We all thought our bound feet looked beautiful,” she says, smiling.

In the 1980s, some of the remaining women started performing dances together, which eventually became an unusual tourist attraction until their decreasing numbers and mobility eventually brought the practice to an end.

Fu remembers the dances fondly, though nowadays she spends most of her time looking after her great-grandchildren and caring for the house where four generations of her family live.

“Whenever there was some big event we would all get altogether, dress up in beautiful clothing and dance. Other times we would just meet to sew our shoes,” she says.

Fu carefully wraps her feet and slides them back into her intricately sewn shoes.

“I’ve lived a good life,” she says. “I am proud to be part of the tradition, but I wouldn’t want my daughter or granddaughters to have had to go through it.”

Images by Jeffrey Lau