From the Wall Street Journal:
In a courtyard of her crumbling house, Wu Liuying lifts her favorite pair of shoes from a dusty cardboard box. Hand-sewn from navy-blue cloth, embroidered with pink flowers, they are no bigger than a small child's slippers.
But they slip easily over the gnarled shrunken feet of the 90-year-old Ms. Wu. From the age of 5, her feet were bound tightly with cotton strips, warping them. The four smallest toes folded under the sole, which was squeezed into a high arch, creating a crevasse between the heel and the ball of the foot.
Hers was among the last of countless generations of Chinese women who bound their feet in search of an idealized form of beauty. Though banned in 1912 after the Qing dynasty fell and the Nationalists established a republic, the practice lingered, especially in remote areas of China. A 1928 census in rural Shanxi province found that 18% of women had bound feet; binding also hung on in Liuyi, in the frontier province of Yunnan.
Few of the elderly survivors care to try to explain to their grandchildren how they came to wear such dainty shoes, the agony they endured and what exactly was so sexy about a 10-centimeter foot that -- being hard to clean -- usually gave off a tangy smell and was prone to decay.
A symbol of China's past, foot-binding still exerts a pull on scholars, and collectors of "lotus" shoes scour the countryside for antique pairs. (The shoes were named for the lotus bulb that the foot was supposed to resemble after one form of binding; regional variations included the less-severe "cucumber" foot, which folded the four toes under but didn't force up the heel and taper the ankle.) The scholars and collectors both come mainly from outside China; the country's own official histories lack much interest in lotus feet.