Foot binding tradition

Photographer captures last traces of the ancient tradition of foot binding

(Read the article on one page)

Throughout history, men and women alike have suffered pain and agony in the name of beauty, from the practices of body modification in indigenous tribes throughout the world, to suffocatingly tight corsets in ancient Europe, and modern practices of piercings, tattoos, and various forms of cosmetic surgery. But few of these practices compare with the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding in terms of duration and agony.  Today, there are few women remaining in China with bound feet, so Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell set out to capture the last traces of this ancient practice.

Body modification practices

Practices of body modification conducted in the name of ‘beauty’

The ancient origins of foot binding are not known for certain, but according to some accounts, foot binding goes back as far as the Shang dynasty (1700 – 1027 BC). Legend says that the Shang Empress had a clubfoot, so she demanded that foot binding be made compulsory in the court. However, historical records from the Song dynasty (960 - 1279 AD) date foot binding as beginning during the reign of Li Yu, who ruled over one region of China between 961 and 975 AD. It is said his heart was captured by a concubine, Yao Niang, a talented dancer who bound her feet to suggest the shape of a new moon and performed a "lotus dance."  When she bound her feet and danced on the lotus, the practice became very fashionable; after all, she was the emperor's favourite concubine and the other concubines attempted to imitate her in order to gain the emperor's favour. By the 12 th century, foot binding had become much more widespread, and by the early Qing Dynasty (in the mid-17th century), every girl who wished to marry had her feet bound.

Results of food binding. Credit: Jo Farrell

The practice fell out of favour in the early 20th century and was finally banned in 1911, however, foot binding continued in rural areas until around 1939. There is now a rapidly dwindling population of Chinese women with bound feet who are still alive today, and a handful of them have been photographed as part of a photography project celebrating their lives.  The pictures of women, now aged in their 80s and 90s, were taken by Jo Farrell, who launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her project, and can be viewed here . “This project documents and celebrates the lives of the last remaining women in China with bound feet,” said Ms Farrell.

“Although considered fairly barbaric, it was a tradition that enabled women to find a suitable partner,” Ms Farrell explained on her Kickstarter page.  However, the practice also deepened female subjugation by making women more dependent on their husbands, restricting their movements and making it impossible to venture far from home.

Tiny pair of shoes

A tiny pair of shoes, no more than 3-inches long, designed for bound feet. Photo source .

The process of foot binding typically began when girls were aged around four to six-years-old, before their feet were fully developed, and was often carried out during the winter months when the girls' feet would be numb from the cold. Feet were soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften them and toenails were cut back as far as possible. The toes on each foot were curled backwards and then pressed downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes and arch broke and bandages were wound tightly around the foot, pressing the toes underneath. The feet would be unbound and washed regularly and the bandages reapplied even tighter.

Jo Farrell captures the results of the ancient tradition of footbinding. 

Unlike most practices of body modification in which one suffers only for duration in which the procedure is carried out, foot binding resulted in the life-long agony of an estimated 2 to 4 billion Chinese women over more than 1,000 years. Their foot bones would remain broken for years, and were prone to repeatedly re-breaking. Toenails often cut into the sole of the foot leading to infection, and women with bound feet were much more likely to fall and break their hips and other bones. Many women who underwent foot binding were left with lasting disabilities.

Featured image: A Chinese woman showing her bound feet. Photo source .

By April Holloway


rbflooringinstall's picture

that's interesting, but i'll just stick to tattoos.

Peace and Love,


Circumscision is still with us today and must cap feet binding as being more psycologically damaging.

I mean both Female and Male Circumscision.

To mutilate the body without the consent of the victim, utterly digusting.

Circumcision is proven to decrease the incidence of Penile cancer by eliminating the putrid smegma that festers in the excess skin of uncircumcised males. How do you consent as an infant? In retrospect I appreciate the decision my parents made.

True but I prefer washing the thing that smells than cutting it off. 

Just for your info that's actually based on a falsified study from eons ago. Several of these still get brought up from time to time but almost every study I've seen actually just goes back to these series of fake tests propagated by people like John Harvey Kellogg (yea Kellogg cereal) and Sylvester Graham (from Graham crackers!) and have been recycled every couple of years.

As far as I researched (it was my master's thesis about six years ago) there isn't any scientific evidence that circumcision provides any health benefits in a (normal, healthy, hygienic) male. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that shows it does cause psychological and physical complication when circumcision is performed. Sorry about the long reply but you seem intelligent and I didn't want you to base a logical opinion on an manipulative study.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

A Mayan zoomorphic ceramic of a chihuahua with a corn cob in its mouth.
A new study shows that animal domestication was not only a question of food for the ancient Maya. Remains of a variety of species, including small dogs, large cats, and some turkeys, suggest the Maya domesticated animals as symbols of social and political strength, traded them, and also used them in ceremonies.

Myths & Legends

Human Origins

Ancient Technology

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article