SU XI RONG’s tiny feet made her one of the most beautiful women in her the village. Hers were a perfect form in a society which valued delicacy in its womenfolk. Photographs of her show an old woman proudly displaying her finest assets. Although to the modern eye, her gnarled skin and unnaturally bent toes can shock, a new exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences by Jo Farrell, a British photographer, brings out their beauty. 

Foot binding became popular among the upper classes in the 10th century, during the Song dynasty, perhaps in imitation of a particularly dainty concubine. The perfect bound foot, known as the “golden lotus”, was less than 10cm long. The cost of such perfection was years of excruciating manipulation and pain. Bandages were used to pull the four smaller toes down underneath the foot while pulling the heel towards the toes. Walking on bound feet would push the metatarsals backwards until the foot broke, creating a deep crevice between the front and the back of the foot.

The result was considered by men to be highly erotic. Sex manuals from the Qing dynasty listed dozens of ways to derive pleasure from a woman's bound feet. At the same time, by restricting women’s mobility, the practice confined women to the family, reinforcing Confucianist ideals about female piety. Yet despite its impracticality, binding became common also among the lower classes, some of whom had to work. Matchmakers insisted to families that it would improve a girl’s prospects for marriage. By the time it was banned, by the nationalist government in 1912, as many as two billion Chinese women had bound their feet. Even afterwards, rural women continued to do so in secret. That became increasingly risky. The communists, who took power in China in 1949, had little time for those who could not work. During the Cultural Revolution’s violent denouncement of old ways in the 1960s and 1970s, the Red Army would force women to unbind and display their bandages in the windows of their houses, to shame them. 

For a decade Ms Farrell has been searching out the last surviving bound women. “I love photographing things that are disappearing,” she explains. In all she has interviewed around 50 women, all of whom appear in her book “Living History: Bound Feet Women of China”. Taken with black and white film, the images are intimate and affectionate. As a photographer Ms Farrell is not obsessively technical. Ask her what sort of lens she used for a particular shot and she might not know. Ask her instead about the day she took the photograph and she can tell you in fine detail about the tea she drank and the conversations she had with the women. When Ms Farrell first met some of the women, most were in their 80s and 90s. One is now 107. Their age gives Ms Farrell’s work urgency, and keeps her going back. 

Ms Farrell, who lives in Hong Kong, befriended the women on visits to their villages in Shandong, in eastern China, and Yunnan province in the south-west. All were unused to talking about themselves. As rural wives, their lives revolved around the small courtyard houses where they have lived and raised their children since their weddings. In their dotage they make dumplings and tend their date trees. At first some were reluctant to show a stranger their bare feet, which would once have been considered the most intimate part of their bodies. Mostly bound feet stayed covered up in slippers or shoes. These, on display in a glass case in the exhibition, look to have been made for a doll. But many are practical, such as straw slippers donated by one of the women, which kept her feet warm in the winter.

The showing of the huge photographs in the Museum of Medical Sciences, along with x-rays in the windows, lends the project an air of academia as well as art. As exotic and barbaric as foot binding seems today, its study demands reflection on the pressures many people face to conform to beauty norms. That is a theme that runs through Ms Farrell's work. An upcoming project has taken her to Myanmar to meet women who wear brass neck coils or tattoo their faces. Closer to home, she ponders why some long for eyelid surgery or “designer” vaginas. It is only by studying the cultures surrounding these practices that we can understand such choices. 

“Bound” is on at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences from March 18th to 31st