'We survived on weeds from the pond and husk from the corn'

Elderly Beijinger tells of hardships, bound feet and beautiful clothes

All images: Cameron Hack/Humans of China
I live by three simple principles: Eat well. Play as much as possible. Always buy and wear beautiful clothes.

I was born in 1931, so this year I am 87 years old. I am originally from Hebei but I now live in Beijing, and have lived here for around four years. I much preferred Beijing before, as it was more lively but not so much now – my hometown isn't a huge city but it's much more lively than Beijing these days. I have five children – three boys and two girls. I also have nine grandchildren.

Binding my feet was extremely painful and, at the time, illegal. My mum and my sisters also had bound feet, and although theirs were completely bound and very small, after a while we stopped binding mine but instead used cloth to tightly wrap just the toes together to try and make them smaller. This created open wounds and they began to fester and turn bad so, eventually, we stopped. I can't remember for exactly how long we did this for. I've always thought this made feet ugly without shoes but bound feet with shoes look rather nice. We also stopped binding my feet as it was growing very unpopular in China.

My father arranged my marriage at the age of 21, which was much later than other ladies of that time. I didn't know my husband but my dad picked him as he was the only child in his family and thought it would be easier – fewer children in a family, fewer problems that family might have. I remember on my wedding day, I wore the most beautiful red dress embroidered with gold lace. When I was four years old, my mum died. My two older sisters helped take care of me when I was growing up. I didn't go to school, which made my father very angry; I refused to go, as I really enjoyed learning how to make clothes and shoes. My next door neighbour took the time and effort to teach me.

Bound Feet 2

Around the age of 22, in about 1951, I remember being really happy. I had just married and we were planning on having children and what we would do for the rest of our lives together. I had a lot of freedom but things slowly changed for the worst. There was never enough food and there was no money. I lost a lot of weight and I was so skinny that you could see each bone. Eventually, I ended up selling things like clothes and jewellery to buy basics, but things soon ran out.

We'd never have meat, eggs or sugar to eat, but we survived on weeds from the pond and the husk from the corn we grew. We worked hard. We had no choice. We worked for very little or no pay. The harder we worked, the higher our score, and if our score was high then they may have given us one or two fen for that day. Any food we grew we passed onto the government.

At night I would take a gas lamp in one hand and a bag of corn in the other. I'd take the corn and grind it up to make flour. I used to grind up the core and husk to make more food for us to eat. If we had any sweet potato, I used to make a sweet substance to give to the kids, like a kind of candy, and old clothes would be recycled to make shoes. Nothing was wasted and everything we could use we'd use. I really hate wasting food and other things. During these years my main job was looking after the children, attending to the land and watching bikes in a lot to ensure they weren't stolen. At this time, my father owned a shop selling products made of steel but he had to slowly hand everything over to the government, like other people, in a joint effort to improve China.

At 86, my husband passed away after eight years of being bedridden. I looked after him day in and day out to ensure his last few years were as comfortable and happy as can be. These days I can't really remember things that have happened recently, but I remember things that happened before a long time ago. Before I retired, I had a dream. I was wearing red clothes – an unlucky symbol in China. The next day, I was using shears to cut grass and I cut the top of my thumb off. That was painful.

I have travelled a lot around China and, last year, my son and daughter-in-law took me to Japan for a holiday. Now I am older, I need to try and keep myself healthy. I sleep less and play more. Each afternoon I play mahjong and, in the evening, I play cards and use a couple of coins to bet. I really love to chat and I love to see people happy. If the people I am around are happy then I am happy too.

Interview by Cameron Hack

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