RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Women know about suffering for beauty - plucking eyebrows, squeezing your feet into stilettos, getting Botox injections. Still these sometimes questionable modern attempts at beauty pale beside one way Chinese women made themselves desirable for hundreds of years, footbinding. Footbinding was banned in 1912, but the practice that produced tiny feet known as three-inch golden lotuses continued in secret.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports from a village in Yunnan Province in southern China where some of the last women with bound feet still live.
LOUISA LIM: Seventy-nine-year-old Wang Lifen hobbles across her living room, swaying on the tiny four-inch triangular stumps that are her feet. She was just seven years old when her mother started binding her feet: breaking her toes and binding them underneath the sole of the foot with bandages. After her mother died, she carried on, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her toes and heel ever closer. All this is why Wang no longer remembers the pain.
Ms. WANG LIFEN: (Through translator) Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken. Young bones are soft and break more easily.
LIM: At that time bound feet were a status symbol, the only way for a woman to marry into money. In old Mrs. Wang's case, her in-laws had demanded the matchmaker find their son a wife with tiny feet. It was only after the wedding, when Mrs. Wang finally met her husband for the first time, that she discovered he was an opium addict. With a life encompassing bound feet and an opium-addict husband, she's a remnant from another age. That's how author Yang Yang, who's written a book about these women, sees them.
Mr. YANG YANG (Author): (Through translator) These women were shunned by two eras. When they were young, footbinding was already forbidden, so they bound their feet in secret. When the communist-era came, production methods changed. They had to do farming work and again they were shunned.
LIM: Outside the temple in Liuyicun, old women sit chatting, some resting their shrunken feet in the sunlight. Seven years ago there were still 300 women with bound feet in this village, but many have since died. The village's former prosperity from its thriving textile business was the reason why every family bound their daughters' feet, and they carried on long after footbinding was outlawed in 1912.
Eighty-six-year-old Zhou Guizhen remembers tricking the government inspectors.
Ms. ZHOU GUIZHEN: (Through translator) When people came to inspect our feet, my mother bandaged my feet, then put big shoes on them. When the inspectors came, we fooled them into thinking I had big feet.
LIM: Zhou Guizhen is now a fragile 86-year-old with a rueful chuckle. Tottering in her blue silk shoes embroidered with phoenixes, she marvels at how the world has changed. Born into a rich family and married into fabulous wealth, all her possessions were confiscated by the communists.
Now she opens the door to her dark, decrepit one-room hut with earthen floors and paper-lattice windows through which the cold wind whistles. Values have been turned upside down since her childhood. Then, she says, bound feet were seen as a mark of class. Now they stand for female subjugation.
Ms. ZHOU: (Through translator) I regret binding my feet. I can't dance, I can't move properly. I regret it a lot. But at the time, if you didn't bind your feet, no one would marry you.
LIM: These golden lotuses were proof of a foot fetish on a national scale, with hobbled feet acting as another erogenous zone, the most forbidden of them all. But for author Yang Yang, whose mother had bound feet, the reality was far more prosaic.
Mr. YANG: (Through translator) The bandages that women used for footbinding were about 10 feet long, so it was difficult for them to wash their feet. They only washed once every two weeks, so it was very, very stinky. But when I was young, I was very free, because when I was naughty my mother couldn't run fast enough with her bound feet to catch me and beat me.
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: And despite their self-inflicted disabilities, these women are survivors. Back at old Mrs. Wang's house she's chatting with the neighbors. She often baby-sits their toddler, carrying the plump 20-pound child on her back as she goes about her daily chores. As Wang surveys her tiny shoes, cocking her head from side to side, it's clear she's proud of her little feet.
Ms. WANG: (Through translator) There's not a single other woman in this area who could fit their feet into my shoes. When my generation dies, people won't be able to see bound feet even if they want to.
LIM: These women even gained fame of a sort, forming a bound-feet disco-dancing troupe which toured the region, shimmying to this song among others. Mrs. Zhou was once the star of the troupe, but now she's too old to dance.
Such public display is a far cry from their youth, when their bound feet restricted their freedom, keeping them close to their homes. But the local press criticized the dance troupe, talking of exploitation and freak shows. These women yet again are victims of history in a society that finds their plight an embarrassing reminder of its own recent brutality towards women.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Liuyicun, Yunnan Province, Southern China.
MONTAGNE: One legend has it that bound feet began with a dancer who shaped her feet to look like the new moon. A history at npr.org.