History Unbound

Photographer and cultural anthropologist, Jo Farrell, has spent the past eight years finding and documenting the last remaining Chinese women with bound feet. As her odyssey draws to a close, she spoke with Talk about culture, beauty and shining a spotlight on “old China”.

Foot binding was officially banned in China in 1911, but this is a country when history and traditions run deep, and it wasn’t until the all-conquering Red Army travelled the country, forcibly removing the bandages from young girls’ feet, that the practice was finally eradicated, almost four decades later.

The practice has long fascinated Western onlookers, for whom the idea of three-inch long “lotus feet” seems a bizarre standard of beauty, though for centuries, it remained in fashion, and probably would have continued to do so, without government intervention.

Jo Farrell, a Brit who had been in and out of Asia for two decades, was working on a photographic series documenting cultural traditions that were dying out, when she decided to start searching for women with bound feet in China to include in the project.

Not even sure if there were any left at the time, back in 2006, Farrell searched online and off in vain before stumbling across her first subject – the grandmother of a Shanghai-based friend’s driver.

And so a new passion project was born, as Farrell was tipped off to more elderly women with tiny feet. Her work evolved from the dying cultural traditions series, to a specialisation in foot binding and the “Living History: Bound Feet Women of China” project.

“These women were surprised I wanted to document their feet because it’s considered a part of “old China” and the focus has been on “new China” for some decades now,” Farrell said of the women who have become part of her “Living History” series.

“During the Cultural Revolution you had the dreaded “four olds”, and old culture and traditions were strongly denounced. So now it’s hard for people to understand putting these old practices at the forefront.”

Eight years after beginning the project, this intrepid anthropologist has photographed more than 50 women with bound feet – all of whom are in their 80s and 90s, and some of whom have passed away since Farrell was able to photograph them, making her mission all the more urgent.

“I had to explain to them that the project was more about a record of these women, more of an anthropological study, showing their feet and their lives, so future generations could learn about what these women had endured and could understand the human side behind this cultural tradition,” Farrell explained.

For many of the women who have become part of Farrell’s “Living History” project, the stories of their bound feet have a familiar refrain. As young, pre-teen girls, tightly wound bandages broke the bones of their toes beneath the soles of their feet, obviously causing immense amounts of pain.

Despite the agony, a majority of the women Farrell has spoken to still look upon their bound feet as a point of pride.

“Quite a few of the women have told me stories about how they were considered the most beautiful women in the village, because of their bound feet, giving them better marriage prospects,” Farrell said.

Because of their own positive experience with bound feet, Farrell has little doubt that these women would have continued the tradition with their own daughters, had they been given the chance.

“It would have continued because they knew it would give their daughters a chance of a better life, just as their mothers had done for them and their grandmothers had done for their mothers,” she added.

In their twilight years, bound feet are once again bringing these simple village women (the practice was eradicated earlier in metropolitan areas where enforcement was easier than in remote agricultural communities) some positive attention, in a world that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new and the young.

“Over the past thirty years, they have become the grandmothers of the village and village life revolves around the younger generations, not the old ladies. So me coming into the village suddenly put the spotlight on them and made them feel special, people are noticing them and it gives them a recharge,” Farrell said.

The “Living History” project has also had a bit of a recharge in recent months, with Farrell raising money via crowd-finding website Kickstarter, with a total of $14,660 raised, far surpassing her $8,000 goal.

“I have been documenting these women for the past eight years and the majority of it has been self-funded, which is very expensive, especially when you are a film photographer, rather than a digital photographer. It’s been consuming my own finances,” Farrell explained, adding that she was “completely overwhelmed” by the response from the Kickstarter community and international media outlets, who picked up the story and spurred even more donations (which are still coming in via Farrell’s own website).

This month, the Hong Kong-based photographer will use the funds to travel to rural China once again, searching out the last remaining women with bound feet in Shandong province, an area that has proved a rich hunting ground in previous trips.

Even though Farrell believes this to be her last “work” trip to Shandong, she hopes to continue visiting regularly, as the women included in her project have become accustomed to her popping in, and she likes to keep up-to-date on the happenings in their lives.

“I typically visit them once a year, to catch up with them, take more photographs and find out how their families are, whether their granddaughters have been married, but I’m hoping that at the end of this next trip, I will have completed my work in Shandong,” Farrell said.

“I would still like to go back to Yunnan province and I was told of a woman in Nanjing I would like to go visit, but then I
would like to start another project.”

Before she decides what her next move is, however, there is still work to be done on “Living History”, with a coffee table book of photographs and interviews with China’s last remaining women with bound feet planned for release before the end of the year.

For more information on Jo Farrell’s “Living History: Bound Feet Women of China”, or to make a donation, please visit her website, www.jo4507.wix.com/jofarrell