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The Shoes Fit, but Feet Grow Rare

China: Company caters to dwindling numbers of elderly women whose feet were bound.


HARBIN, China — Death has already claimed many of the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory's loyal customers. With more likely to succumb in the next decade or two, the company has had to think creatively to stay in business.

But as long as there are clients who need them, the factory plans to manufacture the products for which it is known: the tiny shoes worn by women whose feet were bound as young girls.

Across China, the number of such women is diminishing by the year. Most are in their 80s and 90s, their very bodies serving as reminders of a bygone era in the world's most populous nation.

For centuries such women were toasted as the epitome of feminine beauty and allure. Then they were scorned as the embodiment of backward, feudal thinking. Now they're the object of study by sociologists, physicians and historians.

But to Du Guanghua, such women are flesh and bone, however disfigured. They still need to get around, and she is determined to keep them well-shod.

"We don't make much money from it," said Du, the boss at Zhiqiang. "We're doing this now more as a contribution to society."

Her company is among the last in China to manufacture such shoes. Most other cobblers, seeing only dwindling returns in a dying market, either scrapped that part of their business long ago or switched to selling the slippers as daintily embroidered souvenirs rather than as footwear.

The Zhiqiang factory has watched demand plummet for "little shoes," as the Chinese call them, by nearly two-thirds in 10 years. It now clears a mere 700 pairs a year, most of them destined for customers here in northeastern China, but some for women elsewhere. "People from other provinces come to put in orders because they know of this factory," Du said.

In Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, a shoemaker that has been around for nearly a century sells about 20,000 pairs annually but also has suffered a steep drop in business.

The market almost certainly will vanish within the next two decades, and the deaths of the women who wore such miniature slippers will close a chapter of social history that lasted a thousand years and still fascinates people.

Books have been written about the phenomenon, which involved wrapping young girls' feet to restrict their growth. A Columbia University professor devotes a class to the subject. A few years ago, the discovery of a village in Yunnan province with 300 elderly women with bound feet made headlines, especially after they were found to enjoy disco dancing and playing croquet.

But foot-binding is a topic that many Chinese approach with reluctance and embarrassment, preferring to forget what seems a shameful legacy of their imperial past.

The government is highly sensitive to anything that might tarnish China's image as a modern country, and women with bound feet seem too apt a metaphor for the encrusted ideals and practices that crippled this society in the early 20th century and impeded progress.

It took American academic Pam Cooper several years to overcome the suspicion of her contacts in China when she tried to track down women with bound feet for interviews during the mid-1990s.

"I knew it would be somewhat of a struggle," said Cooper, who teaches at Northwestern University. "I was surprised that even my friends at the Chinese University of Hong Kong were reluctant to talk about it or put me in touch with people."

The prevailing attitude, Cooper said, was "it's past; move ahead; just forget about it."

Once she found the women, however, they were eager to share stories that even their own children and grandchildren had never heard--stories of the pain involved in foot-binding, but also of pride in the beauty they felt they achieved.

It was a beauty, of course, defined by men. "It's the same in every culture," Cooper said. "There's a standard of beauty, and whoever's in power gets to determine that. And generally it's men in power."

Exactly when foot-binding began in China remains shrouded in mystery. The custom existed at least as early as the 10th century. One story tells of an emperor enchanted by a concubine with small feet who danced atop a lotus-shaped platform, which set off the foot-binding craze and gave such feet the nickname of "golden lotuses."

Other sources say that "golden lotuses" refer to the shape of the feet themselves, a curled-up form achieved only after years of binding with strips of cloth wound tight enough to break the bones, bend the foot and stunt growth.

Binding began for girls as young as 5 or 6, a tradition passed from mother to daughter. The bandages would fold down the four small toes toward the sole of the foot and force the heel inward, exaggerating the arch. The process was excruciating. Flesh would rot. Girls wept in agony, sometimes unable to eat or drink or think because of the pain.

But at a time when their only value was as a marriageable asset, the girls had no choice.

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