Meet 4 of the Last Ladies in China with Bound Feet

By Cameron Hack, additional reporting by Edoardo Donati Fogliazza and Valerie Osipov, February 14, 2019

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This is part of our "Portraits of China: A Collection of Stories From China's Past" series. Read more about the Dai ethnic minority group in Yunnan here and survivors of the Second Sino-Japanese War here.

Dating back to the 10th century, the peculiar Chinese tradition of footbinding was a common practice among young girls in China. 

Having small feet was associated with social status and would increase chances of marriage. Despite the excruciating pain, girls often had no choice but to bind their feet, which they would achieve by wrapping them tightly with bandages so that their toes would begin to tuck under towards the heel. They would continue to do this until their feet were as small as three inches – the ideal desirable size. Decorative handmade shoes, made by the families themselves, were then worn to adorn the prized feet. 

It wasn’t until 1912 that footbinding was first banned in China, though many women secretly carried on with the practice. Cameron met with several of the remaining women with bound feet to hear their individual experiences surviving the severe cultural custom.

89 years old

Photo by Cameron Hack

“I started to bind my feet at the age of 4 with the help of my mother. I didn’t agree but I had no choice, and at that time I didn’t really understand. My parents had six kids but I have the smallest feet out of them all. My sisters started to bind their feet but eventually stopped so their feet are much bigger than mine. I never stopped binding my feet – I still wrap them in cloth today. Back then it was very painful but now it doesn’t hurt at all, though these days I can’t really walk. I use a wheelchair to help me move around and live with my son and his wife who care for me. 

Even though my feet are really small and always have been, I used to be able to dance alongside some other ladies with bound feet in a dance group for tourists who visited our village. We were all getting old so we stopped about six years ago. I recently fell over so one of my legs is swollen and very painful, and that’s why one foot looks bigger than the other. 

Photo by Cameron Hack

I married at the age of 15 and spent many happy years with my husband who died three years ago. We were farmers and worked very hard for very little. Sometimes it was hard to find enough food. We had five kids – two boys and three girls. They are all grown up and have kids of their own now. 

I’ve never left this village, but many people like to visit me because of my small feet. They like to take photos and videos – sometimes they even like to buy the shoes I’ve made. I can sell a pair of shoes that I no longer wear for 100 yuan. I used to make many beautiful shoes but I can’t wear them anymore. 

The last few years have been the happiest years of my life as I can really eat well, wear beautiful clothes, spend time with my grandkids and watch them grow up.”

87 years old
Inner Mongolia

Photo by Cameron Hack

“I started to bind my feet at around 8 years old. My mother made me and she would help me at first. She would tell me when I was crying and in pain that if I didn’t have small feet then no one would want to marry me. My grandmother also agreed to make my feet small. Both of them have very small feet too. My younger sister didn’t have to bind her feet – she was lucky. There is no pain in my feet now, but I remember I often cried and couldn’t sleep very well. I would try to avoid walking by crawling around on my knees instead. 

I don’t like to talk too much about my past as it was tough, but in my old age I feel much happier. I have had the chance to travel to some other cities and now my husband [and I] live quite well. I am lucky that I have had the chance to grow old with him. I now eat well, drink well, wear nice clothes and feel safe. We still live together, just us two, and this year we are both 87 years old. 

"I would try to avoid walking by crawling around on my knees instead"

We married at 18 and I didn’t meet him until the day of the wedding – we weren’t allowed to meet before. He came from another village and when he arrived he first looked at my small feet and not my face. Back then small feet were very important and the only way to marry a good man. After we married I felt very happy. We worked as farmers and we grew lots of corn. We had three children – one boy and two girls. We have lived in our house together for the last 60 years. Things are good. We never fight and he treats my family very well. He was and still is very gentle and patient and really cares about me. 

Photo by Cameron Hack

I think my feet are ugly. Today I still wrap them up as if I don’t, I find it hard to walk. My daughter and I still make shoes as I can’t buy shoes that fit me. I am healthy and my eyes are still pretty good, unlike my hearing. I can cook, clean and take care of my husband. I spend most of my days at home with him. 

I care most about my children and I want them to lead a happy and healthy life. About 15 years ago our son took us on the train to Beijing. We visited some famous sights but didn’t climb the Great Wall. We went to Tiananmen Square and lots of people were looking at me and my small feet. I wasn’t scared and felt quite safe. I think Beijing is a good place, but now I am too old to return.”

92 years old

Photo by Cameron Hack

“Binding my feet was so painful – I remember I’d cry a lot and if no one was looking, I would take off the bandages and rewrap them lightly to release the pain. If I was caught I would be in trouble, and then I’d have to use a needle and thread to sew the bandages together so I couldn’t easily undo them. I started at 6 years old and I still use white cloth every day to wrap my feet as I am used to doing it on a daily basis. 

My mother died at a young age so she couldn’t help me. An auntie helped, but also made me bind my feet. I didn’t agree but I had no choice. These were hard times for me at such a young age. My dad was a teacher but he died about 40 years ago in an earthquake. He had three wives. The first was my mother. They had three children together – two boys and myself, but my dad has seven kids altogether. 

"Binding my feet was so painful – I remember I'd cry a lot and if no one was looking, I would take off the bandages and rewrap them lightly to release the pain"

The reason we had to bind our feet was so that we could marry. My husband and his family thought small feet were very important. Another reason was that women wouldn’t be able to leave the house, so for a lot of my life I was stuck at home. Back then I was very young and beautiful. He was a very traditional man. He was a soldier but not out of choice – the government made him do this kind of work. He worked as a carpenter afterwards. We married when I was 16 – I didn’t know him before that. On our wedding day he came to my house. Our families chatted for a bit and then we all agreed that we would be married. If my feet were big it wouldn’t have been possible. 

Photo by Cameron Hack

At one point I stopped using bandages to bind my feet. He didn’t reproach me but instead he wrote a letter. It said that if I stopped binding my feet they’d open up and they wouldn’t be small anymore. I think he was afraid that I’d have big feet, and I think he liked small feet a lot. After he wrote the letter I started again. I really liked my husband though and was very sad when he died.

At the age of 18 I started to learn how to make clothes, hats, scarves and shoes. Even though I am 92 now, I still make clothes for the children in my family. I like to make shoes with beautiful patterns of flowers and animals. I always feel happy making those kinds of things – I find it relaxing.

I now live with my son and his wife, and they take very good care of me. I worry about my grandson though – he is already more than 20 years old and is yet to get married. He works at night and sleeps during the day so it’s hard for him to find someone. I hope I can live long enough to see him marry.”

85 years old
Inner Mongolia 

Photo by Cameron Hack

“When I was 11, my adopted mother started to bind my feet. To this day I still use long pieces of cloth that I make to bind them. I knew many ladies with small feet but they have all since passed away. I used to be able to make shoes myself but I can’t anymore. My hands are hurt from the work I used to do and no medicine can help. I don’t let others see my feet as I think they are ugly and it’s a private thing for me. 

When I was one month old I was given to another family who looked after me. They treated me very well, like one of their own daughters. The mother was really good to me. I grew up with one of her sons and at around 17 we [wanted to be together] but we never married. We tried to have children for a long time but we couldn’t conceive, so at the age of about 28 we adopted two children – one boy and one girl. At around the same time, I became pregnant with a set of twins, and shortly after, my husband died. 

I had too many kids after I gave birth to two girls and couldn’t support them all, so I gave one little girl to another family in a different village. That couple had no children and were very happy. The little girl I kept died about a month later but the one I gave away survived. The girl I gave away came to visit me, but that was a long time ago. My biggest regret was giving her away and when I talk about it I feel so sad that I cry. 

Photo by Cameron Hack

I now live with my son and his wife who take care of me. They are sometimes busy working though, so in the morning they’ll cook some dishes for me and then at lunch time I can heat them up for myself. My back and hips also hurt. My life was tough before and we had to carry many heavy things every day, and slowly over time that caused me problems. I never had the chance to study, so I can’t read or write. Back then many girls didn’t have the [opportunity]. 

The house I live in today was the one I lived in with the man I grew up with, so there are many memories here, but they are mostly sad. I really don’t have many happy memories. Nowadays I eat well, and have some nice clothes to wear. On my birthday my family comes to visit, and for that small amount of time, I feel true happiness.”

[Cover photo by Cameron Hack]

Follow the Humans of China project on WeChat (CJHphotography) or Instagram (@officialhumansofchina). 

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