The Last of China's 'Lotus-Feet' Ladies





LIUYI VILLAGE, YUNNAN PROVINCE -- In a courtyard of her crumbling house, Wu Liuying lifts her favorite pair of shoes from a dusty cardboard box. Hand-sewn from navy-blue cloth, embroidered with pink flowers, they are no bigger than a small child's slippers.

But they slip easily over the gnarled shrunken feet of the 90-year-old Ms. Wu. From the age of 5, her feet were bound tightly with cotton strips, warping them. The four smallest toes folded under the sole, which was squeezed into a high arch, creating a crevasse between the heel and the ball of the foot.

Hers was among the last of countless generations of Chinese women who bound their feet in search of an idealized form of beauty. Though banned in 1912 after the Qing dynasty fell and the Nationalists established a republic, the practice lingered, especially in remote areas of China. A 1928 census in rural Shanxi province found that 18% of women had bound feet; binding also hung on in Liuyi, in the frontier province of Yunnan.

"When the Nationalists came here we would undo our feet in the daytime," says Ms. Wu. "Then, in the night, we would bind them again."

In time the Communist government, which took power in 1949, succeeded in stigmatizing foot-binding as backward and shameful. Today, like Ms. Wu's tumbledown house -- where cobwebs cloak the rotted eaves -- the millennium-old custom is slipping into history. Few of the elderly survivors care to try to explain to their grandchildren how they came to wear such dainty shoes, the agony they endured and what exactly was so sexy about a 10-centimeter foot that -- being hard to clean -- usually gave off a tangy smell and was prone to decay.

"It's out of fashion now," says Ms. Wu...



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list