Foot binding tradition

Photographer captures last traces of the ancient tradition of foot binding

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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.

define psychological trauma. I'm assuming you're talking about people who are circumcised later in life, because if an infant retained the psychological trauma of circumcision, then would they not also retain the trauma of birth itself?

That makes about as much sense as saying you want to cut your baby's fingers off so you won't have to bother teaching them to wash their hands.

It COULD help with penile cancer but it doesn't help with pleasure. And also women much prefer natural uncircumsized penises than mutilated ones. It would be pretty disgusting if you didnt clean for so long that it caused you to get cancer. We all wash ourselves if we're hygeinic. So there is not a lot of chance of penile cancer by keeping a natural foreskin. I'm grateful i wasn't circumsized. Putrid smegma? I've never had such a thing. Circumsition is a christian thing... Definitely not for me, thanks. It's something that everyone should research themself before just believing reasons for why they do it etc. If we were suppose to be circumsized we would be born that way. Ignorance leads to obedience

Angel Jewels's picture

Who told you women prefer un circumsized penises..I am a woman and I prefer the opposite!! So I am guessing that is what you're girlfriend told you to make you feel woman do ..why?? I don't know as men do not go out of there way to make woman feel good about anything..I think it has more to do with what you are used to ...personally the thought of what could be under that sweaty disgusting foreskin is a complete put off !!!!

"Women much prefer... uncircumcised penises..."
NO. Just NO. Nobody likes dick cheese.

Circumcision isn't reallly a Christian thing as you put it, it is a Jewish covenant from the Old testament. I am Christian but did not allow the Doctor to circumcise my son. I am very much against mutilating children for the sake of tradition.

She's right, it is traditionally a Jewish practice that was adopted by Christians. The theory was that circumcising boys would deter them from masturbating. In theory, the extra skin made it easier so they cut it off.

angieblackmon's picture

this reminds me a little bit of my ballet days when i did pointe, of course not to the extremes here, but those toe shoes do not leave much wiggle room at all! i guess i don't understand why this lead to being married, but each time had it's own reasoning for such things. 

love, light and blessings


It was a symbol of status in society. Much like a lack of tan skin in European culture used to be.

Poor families needed all children to work the fields, you can't do that with bound feet.

Seriously this shows all you need to know about Human herd Mentality.

To Mutilate your self just because it's "fashionable", truly disgusting!

And if my Parents did this to me like Circumcision or something else, I would have Disowned them as soon as I grew up.

Years ago in University taking Chinese History Grad courses we learned foot binding was put in place by the Manchus so women couldn't run away if the Manchu Overlords and Soldiers wanted some fun.The Que for men was so Manchu Cavalry could catch fleeing men by the long hair if they ran. If study has shown more....good. As for Circumcision, that is the contract between God and Abraham. Good for Health reasons in that boys and men were taught NOT to be washing and fingering their parts on risk of damnation. When I was a lad the Nuns assured us we would go to Hell if we bathed and touched our privates more than once a week. As an aside, boys were forced to sleep on their right side to keep their Dominant hand under their bodies to discourage the Sin of Solitarus. Then too, we had to be wary of Incubus.

Good grief! What a load of old nonsense!!! Hopefully we're all a lot more enlightened these days.

I figure if god exists (and he most certainly does not) he wouldn't have given us foreskins if he wanted us to cut them off.

God most certainly does exist.

owwww makes my feet hurt just seeing these pictures

The ruling class of the Manchu Dynasty did not approve of the Han practice of foot binding and during the height of Empress Cixi's power, on Feb 1, 1902, she put an end to it, according to Jung Chang in her book: EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. (pages 5, 177, 317, 325-6.)

I will not name the date, but the tradition of lace feet comes from the physically demanding kinetic ballet.
Women have the highest strength to weight ratio, prior to puberty. Just think of gymnastics girls. And there was prestige among the rich Chinese men to support the arts. There for it was natural that when the girl's weight went up and his career went down, then bought her mentor her as a wife and got both a genetic healthy wife and supported ballet economically. If she stopped because of an injury, so it was no problem, because she did not had to work when she was married to a rich man.
To become adept at walking on toes so went the little ballet girls on toes every day, and the unnatural load destroyed the growth zones of the feet. The shorter feet meant that it was easier to walk on toes.
Now there were some old widows who made it their livelihood to lace the girls' feet so that they were worth more in bride price.
And while girls could get different bride price for the feet size. So fishermen brides had great natural feet. Peasants bridal hate small feet, so large that they could go on just toes in the rice fields. And the formed intellectual upper class brides had small feet, unlike the barbaric imperial family, the Manchus who had great natural feet.

The truth about footbinding is that it enhanced sexual pleasure for men. That Lotus walk or waddle on feeble feet created extremely tight vaginas. It bothers me that writers of these "educational articles" attempt to glorify the practice instead of exposing the truth. There is plenty of data, including interviews of Chinese men, substantiating this real purpose of footbinding.

. Who cares what people do. Getting circumcised isn't about psychological effects or what religion you are these days. These days it goes a lot with the social responses to a circumcised to uncircumcised penis. In Australia people aren't circumcised as much do to the social norm. People stick with the familiar what they know and what they have seen. It goes a lot with this in many countries a small example different food variations. Something that is preferred to one person is not to another. Also what is done within families we seem to stick to the stuff we know. Nothing has been proved about cancer or psychological effects or pleasure increased from a circumcised or uncircumcised penis. What we do know is that everyone has their own opinion and they're entitled to it. So circumcised or uncircumcised what does this have to do with bound feet.

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