True travelers, those curious world wanderers, know that part of the joy in a journey – beyond the moments of wonder and the sensory overload caused by the swirl of new flavors, sights, and sounds – is the characters you meet along the way. After all, it’s the people who make the place, connecting you on a deeper level to its culture and history. That’s why we decided to share the Humans of China with all of you.
Collected by Cameron Hack, an English teacher from the UK living in Beijing, each story is a window into China and her people. It is our hope that by sharing these snapshots into the lives of some of its citizens, you’ll be able to understand China better (and maybe be tempted to come and visit this beautiful country somewhere along the way).
For this installment, our story takes us to Yunnan and into a practice that persisted in China for more than a millennium: foot binding. Once all the rage throughout China, girls from all social classes began binding their feet with the goal of achieving the coveted “golden lotus” — feet measuring a mere three inches long which were sure to bring an auspicious marriage. From the Song Dynasty to as recently as the late-1940s, the practice endured. Today, most of the remaining women with bound feet can be found tucked away in the remote corners of rural China.
“I started to bind my feet at around five years of age… It was ever so painful making them small but, luckily, there isn’t any pain now… At that time, I didn’t really care about the pain – there wasn’t much I could have done anyway. I wanted to make my feet small, and I wouldn’t want them to be any bigger. I think the smaller the feet, the more beautiful you are.”
On most mornings, I wake up, get washed and dressed, and then take a walk for about 20 minutes to my son’s shop to work for a couple of hours. He owns one of the oldest houses in the village and attached to the side is the shop. I am 79, but this year I am turning 80. I find that working a couple of hours each day keeps me active not only physically, but also mentally. The shop isn’t very busy, so the work isn’t hard. I mostly sell snacks to children before school and during their lunch break. After I’ve finished work, I normally spend the rest of the day relaxing with the other ladies in the village. Many of these ladies also have bound feet.
I started to bind my feet at around five years of age. I don’t actually think my feet are that small compared to other ladies I know, knew, or have met. It was ever so painful making them small but, luckily, there isn’t any pain now. There was no blood during the process. However, it did break the bones in my feet. At that time, I didn’t really care about the pain – there wasn’t much I could have done anyway. I wanted to make my feet small, and I wouldn’t want them to be any bigger. I think the smaller the feet, the more beautiful you are. My mom had bigger feet than me. My feet were smaller, which was a good thing as it was easier to find a husband. The smaller the better, she would say.
I still bind my feet now, which is quite a hassle, but it keeps my feet small and comfortable. I still sleep with my feet bound. And every two days, I clean them well and wrap them up again. It’s pretty tiring, but I have no choice. My children don’t really know how to care for my feet. They don’t know how I bind them, but my grandson does. He treats me so well.
A couple of years ago, he took me to Beijing to visit. We spent six days there with a tourist group and went to some famous sights around the city. We went on a boat trip, which was fun, and we climbed the Great Wall! I really liked Beijing and want to go back, but spending six days there all at once was enough. My son was worried about me going to Beijing as it’s far from my village, but my grandson kept me safe and we had a wonderful time. He helped me clean my feet and cut my toenails; otherwise, I would have been in pain. I think the food in Beijing is pretty bland, so I came prepared. I brought a bag of dried chilis that I would take out at mealtimes. I quite like to eat spicy food, and in fact, there isn’t much I don’t like to eat. I flew to Beijing and enjoyed it – I wasn’t scared at all. I enjoyed sitting there and looking out the window and thinking about how small everything was below. The only thing that scared me in Beijing was the elevators. I really didn’t like getting in them, but all the buildings there are so tall. However, we had to use them as I can’t climb very many stairs.
In Beijing, many people were very interested in talking and taking photos of me. I don’t think there are many old ladies with small feet left in Beijing or China. So, when people see a lady like me, they are very curious – Chinese and foreigners alike. Previously, people have wanted to take photos of me and my feet, but I always told them to stop if I didn’t look my best. They always told me I look beautiful. People would run as fast as they could to get in front of me to take a photo. I didn’t really mind them taking photos though as they always seemed happy to see me and were polite and kind even if we couldn’t understand each other at times. They were not only interested in my feet, but also my clothing, which I have worn for as long as I can remember.
When I was younger, there were a few foreigners who visited our village. They came to tell us that we can no longer bind our feet. I don’t know where they were from, but we didn’t listen to them anyway. When they were here, we took off the bandages and told them we would stop. Then I wrapped my feet back up as soon as they had gone.
I married at the age of 16. My husband was 10 years older, which I wasn’t happy about. I didn’t want to marry a man that much older than me, but my mother told me to trust her. She told me he was a good man, and I believed what she told me. She was right after all and he treated us very well, but he has been dead for around 30 years now. When we married, his family gave my parents 20 yuan (which was really a lot of money back then) and some food. Then, he took me to his village where I still live today. My village isn’t too far from here, but I didn’t go home often. I was young and a bit scared to leave. I saw my family less and less, but I felt kind of happy living with him and his family here. His mom only had sons, so she treated me very well. She regarded me as one of her own and I really liked her.
While I worked hard looking after our children and growing vegetables, my husband was busy mining coal, as one of my sons does now. It’s hard and dirty work. Back then there wasn’t much I couldn’t do. I’d fill up baskets with vegetables – which on their own were quite heavy and much heavier after it rained – and carry them for quite some distance to where they needed to be. This was really hard work, but I can no longer do it now that I am old. I have pain in my back and hips, which might be because of those heavy baskets. Today, I can still grow some vegetables, but not many. Instead, my children now grow them near our house.
My husband and I had 6 children – three sons and three daughters. One of my sons has already passed away, which was one of the saddest times of my life. I was also very sad when my husband died. When I was younger, I had no dreams. I just wanted there to be enough food for us to eat, but some days there wasn’t. I never had the chance to study. And we were very poor. We lived in an old house where we used to have the animals live on the ground floor while we would all live on the upper floor.
Around 1958, everyone was given certain jobs around the village. Mine was to fix the walls of an old broken lake. This job came without a salary, but in those days, the government gave food to the people and we all ate together in one place. Most days, I would have to climb the mountains that surround us to try and find wild vegetables for us to eat, but even they were hard to find as everyone was looking for the same thing. There was no rice, meat, or eggs, and the only time we would have some special foods was during Spring Festival. Usually, we would be able to eat some white radish which was normally in a soup. I was very unhealthy at times. We would always make sure that the children could eat first. Now I feel grateful for what I have. If we all eat together, then I will still make sure everyone has eaten well first. When they have, I will eat what has been left by my children and grandchildren. I try to ensure that in my old age I can eat as well as I can.
My father died when I was five, so my mother raised six children alone for the majority of her life. Back then, the rich people used to own a cart and a water buffalo to help farm, and sometimes we’d help them too. We used to ride the cart to the top of the hill, turn it around, and then race the cart back down. The buffalo could move really fast – that was how we had fun. My mother taught me how to sew and make shoes and clothes. When my children were little, I used to make these kinds of clothes for the girls to wear. When I was a little girl though, our clothes were never this beautiful.
I am not scared of dying because I am very prepared. I believe that when you die you move over into a new life, and the things you use in this life you still need to use in the next. In the next life, I will wear these clothes and still have bound feet, so I have made a lot of aprons and little shoes for my family to burn and pass them on to me when that time comes.
Spring Festival is a happy time for me. Before my family comes, I clean the house, change the bedsheets, and wash clothes. I love the time when everyone comes home. The house is really lively, and I can see my family all in the same place. There is singing and dancing and a lot of delicious food. I miss my grandson though, and this is a time he comes home to visit. I am a little worried as he isn’t married yet. I really want to see him find a good wife. I know he is still quite young, but I am getting older. I want to meet any great-grandchildren before I die. Apart from that, I want to visit Hainan and I want to stand in the ocean.
About Humans of China
Cameron Hack, an English teacher from England, has made it his mission to collect the stories of China’s people since arriving in Beijing in 2014. By leveraging the online community, he’s been able to connect with members from some of the Middle Kingdom’s most fascinating – and in many cases, disappearing – communities. Almost 200 stories later (and counting), Cameron has recorded such diverse narratives as the women with bound feet and what life is like in Guizhou.