But the eyes are drawn to Fu’s deformed feet and the tiny, ornate shoes on the floor next to her, both objects marking the 76-year-old as one of the last of a kind.
For almost a millennium, the practice of foot binding was prevalent across Chinese society, starting with the wealthier classes but over the years spreading down through urban and then poorer rural communities. Now the ancient, some say barbaric, practice is almost gone.
Isolated from the country’s key cultural and administrative hubs, the area around Liuyi, a village of about 2,000 people in southern China’s Yunnan province, was one of the last places in the country to end the tradition.
A decade ago, there were more than 300 women like Fu in the village. Now there are just 30, by her reckoning, and because they are all elderly, they rarely come down to the village center, where they once gathered to dance and hand-sew the doll-size shoes they wore.
“Before the [Communist takeover in 1949], all of the girls in the village had to bind their feet. If they didn’t do this, no man would marry them,” says Fu, sitting on a wooden stool in her dusty home on the outskirts of the village, her feet unwrapped.
The feet of girls as young as 5 would be broken and bound tightly with cotton strips, forcing their four smallest toes to gradually fold under the soles to create a so-called 3-inch golden lotus, once idealized as the epitome of beauty.
The process would take many years and would lead to a lifetime of labored movement, as well as a regular need to rebind the feet.
The practice fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, viewed as an antiquated and shameful part of imperialist Chinese culture, and was officially banned soon after. But in rural areas, the feet of some young girls were still being bound into the early 1950s. In Liuyi, the practice didn’t stop until around 1957.
“I started the process in 1943 when I was 7,” says Fu, who smiles at the memory of those youthful days. “At the beginning it hurt with every move I made, but I agreed to go on with the process because it is what every girl my age did.
“My mother had bound feet, and her mother, and her mother,” she says, trailing off, unsure just how many generations it went back.
April 16, 2012|By Kit Gillet, Los Angeles Times