Survivor of ancient Chinese practice of foot binding shares her story

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CHICAGO -- For centuries, small feet were widely viewed as beautiful in Chinese culture, and marked a woman as wealthy.

The average American woman wears a size eight shoe, which measures about 9.5 inches in size. In the ancient "golden lotus" (三寸金莲) tradition, the desired size for a woman's feet was close to three inches.

It's not known how many bound feet survivors are left in the world. WGN'S Nancy Loo spoke with 93-year-old Sun Choi Ngo Chu, who says her mother bound her feet when she was seven years old. Like millions of Chinese women before her, Chu kept her feet bound, in her case to a length of just five inches, for nearly a decade. It wasn’t marriage, but the prospect of a life of leisure that kept her going.

“Because I don’t want to do any farm work. So, I hope my feet is small enough to keep me at home,” Chu said through an interpreter.

Foot binding dates back over a thousand years to the elites of the Song dynasty, and became more widespread by the 12th century. The practice eventually spread to women in lower classes hoping to marry up. While the severity varied by region, many desired to reach the three-inch "golden lotus” standard. There is even evidence that some early immigrants to America bound the feet of their daughters.

Though it was outlawed in 1912, the practice continued for decades.

One of the world's top collectors of lotus shoes, worn by women with bound feet, happens to live within a few miles of Chu in Chicago. Event designer Paul Prentice is documenting this curious part of Chinese history in an upcoming book.

He began the collecting the tiny shoes 40 years ago during a trip to China. Since then he's collected hundreds of pairs, saying he stopped counting at 600. Prentice has never shared his collection publicly, but he shared some examples with Nancy Loo.

“In Chinese culture, the bound foot was never seen. Women never took off their shoes, even to their husbands,” Prentice said.

With foot binding outlawed and out of fashion by the 1930’s, Chu stopped binding her own feet after she turned 16. The man she eventually married didn’t care for the bound feet look.

“It was my mom that kept telling me that I have to have my feet bound. So, I had my feet bound. But now I kind of regret it because the bound feet actually cause a lot of pain,” Chu said.

After moving to Chicago in 1976, Chu sought to undo the damage, enduring multiple foot surgeries to reposition her bones with screws and pins. Chu is glad to be mobile these days, and says she has no real regrets about foot binding, although she knows she is part of a final chapter.

Producer Pam Grimes and photojournalist Mike D'angelo contributed to this report.