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XIAOJIE, China, July 18 (Reuters Life!) - Zhang Huaixian was only three years old when her mother broke her toes and bound them beneath the soles of her feet, turning her into one of thousands of Chinese women once crippled in the name of beauty.
Foot binding, which aims to make a woman's feet look tiny and therefore desirable, was practiced in China for centuries before it was banned in 1912 at the fall of the last imperial dynasty.
But some women continued the practice in secret, particularly in remote areas like Xiaojie, a small town in the southwestern province Yunnan.
Several years ago, more than 100 women with bound feet still lived in the town, a testament to its once prosperous textile business and its residents' high aspirations for their daughters.
Many of the women have since died. Zhang, who is now 97, is one of a handful of survivors.
"I remember the pain very well," she told Reuters. "It hurt so much that I freed my feet at night in secret and rubbed them. When my parents found out, they spanked me and told me not to do it again. Afterwards, they stitched the bandage together so I could not unwind it any more."
After her mother died, Zhang continued to bind her feet, breaking the arch of her own foot to force her disfigured toes and heels ever closer.
But with her shrunken feet Zhang was often unable to fulfill her production quotas in the fields or walk into the mountains to pick vegetables and fruit as required by the Communists who seized power in 1949.
Some historians estimate that as many as 2 billion women had their feet bound over the course of history.
Legend has it that the origins of foot binding go back as far as the Shang dynasty, which ruled between 1700 and 1027 B.C.
A Shang empress had a clubfoot, so she demanded foot binding be made compulsory in the royal court.
Historical records from the Song dynasty show that foot binding began during the reign of Li Yu, who ruled over one part of China between 961 and 975.
He was in love with a talented dancer who bound her feet to imitate the shape of a new moon and performed a "lotus dance", which gives bound feet their name -- "three-inch lotuses".
During subsequent dynasties, foot binding became more popular and spread from the cities to the countryside, where young girls realized that binding their feet could be their passport to a better social status and increased wealth.
But the practice wasn't outlawed until 1912, after the Qing dynasty was toppled. In 1915, government inspectors were allowed to levy fines on those who continued to bind their feet.
Zhang's neighbor, 86-year-old Yang Cuixiu, regrets binding her feet, but says it was the only way she could woo someone to marry her at the time.
"In the wedding, people would look at the feet of the bride first. If she had small feet, people would think she was a good woman. If a girl had big feet, no one would marry her," she said.
In 1982, a group of women with bound feet started a dancing troupe which still sometimes tours the country. The group once had 80 members, but now only nine are left, with the youngest aged 70.