Disappearing cultures: 20 years of photography from China

written by Greg Dickinson

updated 25.10.2018

One of the world’s leading photographers on disappearing cultural practices, Jo Farrell has spent the past ten years documenting the last known women in China with bound feet. Rough Guides travel editor Greg Dickinson caught up with Jo to discuss her archive of experiences travelling around China with a camera.

When did your fascination with China begin?

I went to Beijing in 1998 and absolutely loved it. I just couldn’t get enough. I would wake up at 4am or 5am to go out and photograph the elderly men going out in the mornings with their birdcages. I became slightly obsessed with photographing them.

Bird cage men, Beijing, China, 1998

Beijing bird walkers 1998 © Jo Farrell

How has Beijing changed over the years?

One day I was photographing some beautiful doorways and realised a man was following me. He came up to me and said: “I speak a little English. I’m a lawyer and I live in this area. These hutongs [narrow alleyways from the Ming dynasty] are ready for demolition, so I’m glad you’re here recording these areas before they go.” If you go to Beijing now, many of the hutongs have vanished in place of new high rise buildings.

Hutong in Beijing, 1998 – Jo Farrell

A hutong in Beijing in 1998 © Jo Farrell

What was the most bizarre experience you had over the last 20 years?

I was travelling overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu in a 4X4 with four other people. They decided they wanted to go to Base Camp and talked to the driver about it, but they didn’t ask me. I didn’t have any clothes suitable for Everest’s cold conditions and had to buy a monk’s cassock to keep me warm. At Base Camp I spent the night in the monastery and realised there was no glass in the window. Outside it was snowing and there were yaks everywhere; I felt like i was hallucinating!

Who are the most memorable people you’ve met?

The most incredible people I met were the women with bound feet [a fashion trend that involved disfiguring a woman's feet into a point and was outlawed 103 years ago], who I’ve documented over the last ten years. The history of China in the last hundred years has been very harsh and quite dramatic with the cultural revolution, the formation of the Republic of China, then the People’s Republic of China and the Great Famine. And these women went through it all with their feet bound, something they thought would give them a better future and a better life. They have the most amazing tales of what life was like; it was an honour to be a voice for them.

Bound feet women

Yange Jinge © Jo Farrell

What other traditions have you encountered?

I’ve often found myself doing side projects covering various Chinese traditions. For example last time I was in Shandong I was staying with a lady whose son was the baker of the village. He made this bread they call mantou, a traditional kind of doughy steamed bread. When I first entered her son’s house I was amazed at what was happening. The room was neck-high with steam – you could see heads but no legs – and all the neighbours flocked in to buy their bread. I came back the next day and started photographing.

Great Wall of China 1998

Great Wall of China 1998 © Jo Farrell

How much has the country changed since you arrived here?

When I first arrived in China pizza, coffee and Japanese food weren’t very popular at all. Now they’re prevalent. Pizza and sushi and coffee are huge in all the cities. In the 1990s there was one hotel I would stay in just because it had espressos. Now coffee is everywhere.

What surprised you most about China?

I suppose it’s what most people say: it’s the toilets. The experience at the Great Wall is something I’ll never forget. I went into this kind of chicken shed and there were all these holes in a row, no wall in between, and no door. Just a room of holes – so I just went down to the furthest one from the door and hoped for the best...

Yangshou (Guilin) - Fishermen

Fisherman in Yangshou (Guilin) © Jo Farrell

What are your other photographic highlights?

I spent some time documenting the cormorant fishermen in Guilin – the area most famous for its mountains. The fishermen here tie a string around the birds’ necks and train them to catch fish in their gullet. Then the birds return and the fishermen stroke their necks, take the tie off and they spit out all the fish. The birds here are wonderful. I need to go back again.

Find out more about Jo Farrell’s Living History project here. Explore more of China with the Rough Guide to China. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Greg Dickinson

written by Greg Dickinson

updated 25.10.2018

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