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Bounded Potential: Jo Farrell and the Last Generation of Chinese Women With Bound Feet 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016
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"Somebody has to write something to celebrate their lives," says Jo Farrell of the elderly peasants in rural China who were the last generation of women to bind their feet, a practice that dates back nearly 1,000 years until the Communists fully eradicated the practice in the late 1940s. "All the books talk about the eroticism, and everyone always says how barbaric this is and how horrible. Can you imagine being told, 'Oh God, you're ugly, you're barbaric?' "

Her Living History: Bound Feet Women of China documents 50 women in their mid-70s through their early-100s from China's Shandong and Yunnan provinces, and the images depicted therein offer a strong challenge to easy Western notions of beauty (complicated by the women's advanced age). Toes that have been — for want of a better word — mushed beneath these women's soles since childhood may look like unambiguous deformities, but even that medical-sounding word implies judgment. It is also inaccurate to say that binding breaks women's feet; strictly speaking, the small toes are wrapped tightly under the big toe to draw the heel closer and create a dramatic arch. Nor does it necessarily restrict mobility, even in old age. Although inadequate medical care in rural areas means that a broken hip effectively confines a woman to bed for the remainder of her life, one of Farrell's subjects is a champion bowler.

Knee-jerk Western condemnations of foot-binding all too often overlook the resilience and justifiable pride that characterize these women's experiences. Hoping to marry into better circumstances, some chose to bind their feet, while others were forced into it by their mothers or grandmothers, who believed it signaled a marriageable combination of strength and docility. (Instead of the abhorred practice of female "circumcision" — genital mutilation — Farrell's preferred analogues in Western society areBotox, labiaplasties, or Victoria Beckham's breast augmentation and subsequent reduction.) These women went on to survive the Japanese occupation, the Chinese Civil War, the devastating famine that followed The Great Leap Forward — Mao Zedong's failed modernization plan in the late 1950s — and the whipsawing social mores of the Cultural Revolution. They've been through a lot, but to treat them as pitiful victims, Farrell says, is dehumanizing and incomplete. (The full picture can be found at Farrell's website, livinghistory.photography.)

At its height in the Qing dynasty, some 40 to 50 percent of ethnic Han Chinese women bound their feet. Many of her Chinese friends assured Farrell that the practice had been banned a century ago and any women with bound feet had long since passed away. But a chance encounter with a cab driver whose grandmother's feet were bound led Farrell to rural villages where she met women who'd had difficult lives, many of whom had worked in the fields even while pregnant, using their heels as tools, and who had lost children to starvation.

A British-born photojournalist and cultural anthropologist who lives and works in Hong Kong, Farrell learned Mandarin at City College of San Francisco when she lived here in the late '90s. She's documented disappearing cultures in places as far-ranging as Tibet and Cuba, but Farrell is particularly fixated on China, which is often regarded as a culturally monolithic country. One of her next projects centers on the Dulong, a Chinese tribe in which older women tattoo their faces.

There are hurdles to these endeavors, however. The language barrier, for one.

"I usually get a translator who's local, but even they don't always understand the local dialect," she says.

Compounding that, several women Farrell spoke to initially declined to participate — until she sent them copies of her first book on foot-binding and visited their village a year later to find them asking to be in the next one.

"Her feet were just amazing," Farrell says of Zhang Yun Ying, the first woman she met. They were "like a ceramic or marble sculpture," she says.

"It made me realize for the first time what these women had been through to achieve this," Farrell adds. "In some ways, there's beauty in it. It's absolutely incredible what she did."

Often, the occasion when a young girl's feet were first bound — soaking them in animal blood on an auspicious day, then wrapping them lengthwise and then back again — was a major milestone. And as the young woman matured, an erotic element crept in.

"It was like the forbidden fruit, because the only person who could watch was the husband," Farrell says. Properly bound feet create a bootheel-like "crevice" or "tight spot to be intimate" — as Farrell puts it — and as many prostitutes bound their feet, "men would seek out a woman with bound feet and they would do all kinds of things, like they were penetrating her."

Both Cixi, the last empress dowager of China, and Sun Yat-sen, first president of the Republic of China, managed to ban foot-binding in China's cities, and missionaries helped eradicate the practice in the countryside before the Communists finally did away with it, forcibly removing the bandages from young girls. However proud women with bound feet might be of what they went through — one woman recalled her grandmother punishing her by cutting off a slice of her toes if she caught her trying to remove the bandages — the practice is a relic, unlikely to return. The youngest women Farrell met were born in 1935.

Fiercely independent though these women may be, the isolation of old age can sound especially sad. Shao Feng Rong was 81 years old when Farrell spoke with her in 2010, three-quarters of a century after her feet were first bound. "She feels very lonely in her old age — her children rarely visit her," Farrell writes in Living History. "She likes to smoke as she is so bored."

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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