Footbinding in China

We recently found among our old slides, several pictures of women with bound feet. The one above is not ours, but shows the actual deformity. The picture below and the ones Joel took himself reminded us of how we came to write our story about a Chinese doctor’s discovery of the secret of long life:  

Foot binding, the rendering of young girls immobile by deliberately maiming them, had been part of the Chinese culture since the eighth century. Some time before the age of five, young girls had the heel and toes of each foot pulled together and bound tightly with cloth, until the toes were turned under. Bones that resisted were broken with a wooden mallet, the resultant pain continued for years until the feet became numb. Such torture produced a teetering, swaying gait regarded as a mark of sexual appeal and endured because a girl’s marriage potential and desirability were determined by the size of her feet, not by the beauty of her face. Unable to move, a helpless woman with so-called “golden lilies” would serve her husband and master in any way he desired. Often young girls died from the infection that developed. Even if they survived, the smell from a continuously festering foot would have been terrible.

This barbaric tradition was finally banned in 1911 so you can imagine Joel and my surprise when we saw several dozen women outside a building our guide said was a Longevity Institute in Xi’an in 1985. We would have expected only a few such women to be alive with this deformity and certainly not congregated in one place. That “sighting” became part of the impetus for our story. Wouldn’t it be interesting, we thought, if the Chinese were secretly working on aging research here and in fact had, discovered some way to extend the normal life expectancy, all the while keeping it secret?  And that’s what we wrote: in our story, Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng has his “subjects’ inside the Longevity Facility, a separate wing of the Xi’an Institute.