This week Newsnight has been featuring reports from the documentary series Return to White Horse Village about the upheaval of a rural community in China as the village is turned into a city. Last night’s episode focused on the women and how their lives are changing with urbanisation – the city bringing money and freedom from a life in the fields doing back-breaking work to support their families. One woman had never read a book or travelled outside of the village, another spoke of her frustration at being told by her elders that she has to “put up with it” [do the work] like everyone else.
China’s ‘one-child policy’ (in the cities) which started in the 1970s was eased last year, so after decades of gender bias men currently outnumber women by 33m, which creates an interesting dynamic in terms of work, sex and relationships. Economically independent women in the cities are aspirational and can cherry pick their men so will inevitably want a partner with a broader cultural outlook, and take the opportunity to work, travel and educate themselves as their mothers may not have been able to.
This theme of power dynamics and old versus new is the basis of a new book by Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell. For the past nine years, she has been documenting cultural trends and changes and capturing arts and traditions that are dying out. Her book Living History: Bound Feet Women of China documents 50 women with bound feet from rural areas.
She asked them to share their stories, which are illustrated with black and white photos of their delicate ‘lotus’ feet. The close-up shots are difficult to look at yet this is a practice that continued in secret after it was outlawed by the government in 1912, and many mothers bound their daughters’ feet to improve their ‘marriageability’ into a higher social class. Bound feet limited women’s mobility making them more dependent on their husband and family.
Jo’s aim is to challenge preconceptions about the type of women who experienced foot binding – it wasn’t all upper-class concubines, and to share their stories so that people look beyond their feet.
“There is a general presumption that the bound feet women of China came from privileged backgrounds and wore exquisite silk shoes but I discovered that many of the surviving women came from peasant backgrounds and had lived extraordinary lives working in the fields, despite their bound feet. All the women I have photographed are now between 80 and 100-years-old from rural areas in Shandong and Yunnan Provinces. My work is about capturing traditions and cultures that are dying out, and therefore I chose to use black and white film and print silver gelatin prints – in tribute to these resilient, formidable women, some of whom are no longer with us.”
Resilient and formidable indeed.
As with the women in the documentary, there’s a sense of acceptance, not making a fuss and just getting on with it, which is humbling and so it’s great to see a project like this paying tribute to them. Binding women’s feet was a long-term process done with bandages and so cost nothing – we in the West may call judgement but we also pay vast amounts for cosmetic surgery and ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ to alter the way we look, so really, how is it any different?
Jo has been in London this month speaking about her project at Asia House and to launch the V&A Museum’s new exhibition: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. She is looking for funding for further projects along similar themes: documenting the facial tattoos of tribal women of China’s Hainan Island and the ethnically exclusive Hakka women in Hong Kong, so if this is something you’d like to support check out the links below.
Shoes: Pleasure & Pain is at the V&A Museum until 31st January 2016.