diverse customs and styles as regards its traditional dress
culture, and the abundance and variety of Chinese footwear
justifies its being singled out from other items of apparel
to be studied separately as "shoe culture". Footwear
is an interesting facet of the many aspects of Chinese culture.
From "Foot Clothing" to Leather
Ancient Chinese distinguished the main
items of dress as "upper clothing," "lower
clothing" and "footclothing,"
the latter referring to both shoes and socks. In ancient written
Chinese, the character for socks has the same radical, "??,"
as that for shoes, which means tanned animal hide. In the
ancient script engraved on bone and tortoise shell it depicts
a whole animal hide that has been trimmed and stretched out.
This would indicate that, at the time written Chinese was
being formulated, socks and shoes were both related to leather.
In ancient times there was, in fact, no distinction between
shoes and socks. The ancients would protect their feet by
cutting out pieces of animal hide, wrapping them around their
feet, and securing them with leather thongs. According to
archaeologists, this kind of foot wrapping first appeared
in the Old Stone Age.
Later, in the process of making footwear
ancient people learned to use bone needles, to dry and hammer
animal tendons thin enough to use as thread, to dye animal
hides with animal fats and plant juices, and to rub the hides
with their hands to make them soft. This practice formed the
basis of the method through which shoes would later be made.
The earliest pair of leather shoes extant
in China is a 4,000-year-old pair of boots made from sheep
hide, worn by a mummified female corpse discovered in the
ruins of the ancient kingdom of Loulan, in the deserts of
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The lower and upper parts
were sewn together using thick hide threads.
The ancient nomads of north China wore
boots made from a variety of materials. Tibetan boots were
made of yak hide, the Oroqen people used roe deer hides, and
the Hezhen people used fish skin. The Huns were more sophisticated
in their boot-making methods and used sheep wool rolled into
felt as their basic material.
Leather boots were first introduced into
the Central Plains area by King Wuling of the State of Zhao
during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). In 325 B.C.,
threatened by contending states, King Wuling decided to replace
his warring chariots with mounted archers. The king dispensed
with the traditional loose robes and wooden soled, flax-fabric
shoes normally worn in battle, dressing his cavalrymen instead
in tunics, pants and boots modeled on the attire of the northern
nomads, thus making his troops one of the strongest and best
protected of the time.
Straw Shoes and Wooden Sandals
China's northern and northwestern people were sewing hide
boots with bone needles and hide thread, people in the east
were making straw shoes using bamboo needles and flax thread.
Archaeological finds show that as early as 7,000 years ago,
ancient Chinese had learned to make articles of daily use
from plant fibers. Certain researchers believe that bamboo
needles and flax thread date back even further than bone needles
and hide threads.
A Chinese legend tells how straw shoes
came into being: An impoverished old man eked out a living
by chopping up and selling firewood. When fetching wood from
the mountains, he often injured his feet on thorns and pointed
stones, and so would wrap his wounded feet in wild grass.
However, as the grass would inevitably come loose and fall
away, he devised a way of twisting it into ropes, which he
then tied around his feet. Still later he wove this rope into
a sole and instep to facilitate the wearing and taking on
and off of this footwear.
Many kinds of grass can be used to make
shoes. In ancient times, therefore, almost all people across
China wore straw shoes, excepting only nomadic tribes. The
main difference in mode of this footwear was that people in
the frigid north wore thick straw boots, while those in the
hot, humid south wore straw sandals. Straw footwear was worn
by all, whether they were nobles, men of letters or farmers.
Along the eastern coast of Shandong Province, farmers would
wear "straw nests" -- boots woven tightly with the
stems and leaves of cattail or corn leaves? -- in the depths
of winter. These materials were most effective in keeping
the feet warm and, even today, local farmers still weave this
kind of boots for export.
In Shandong Province, straw boots were
attached to wooden soles, making them a combination of straw
shoes and wooden sandals, the latter originating from the
Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). They came in two styles,
with either flat or ridged soles. In later years, poet Xie
Lingyun (385-433), a keen mountaineer, invented removable
ridges. When going uphill, he removed the ridges from the
front of the sole, and when going downhill, from the heels.
Military, Cloth and Silk Shoes
From the ruins of the Yin and Shang Dynasties
(14th-12th centuries B.C.), archaeologists have unearthed,
on independent occasions, a pair of leather shin guards and
a headless, kneeling jade human figure, whose shins show traces
of wrapping. According to historical records, before military
boots were invented, soldiers wrapped pieces of hide and rattan
around their shins for protection, and certain scholars believe
that military boots were developed from these beginnings.
Examination of the terra-cotta warrior
figures of the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 B.C.) unearthed in Shanxi's
Houma City shows clearly that the neat stitching on the soles
of their footwear is exactly the same as that seen on the
stitched soles of hand-made cloth shoes today. This discovery
indicates that stitch-soled cloth shoes were invented for
military wear over 2,000 years ago. However, before cotton
was introduced into China along the Silk Road at a later time,
ko-hemp and flax were used for the stitching of shoes, when
the flax stitching in particular made soles both durable and
stable. Within the ranks of the underground terra-cotta army
of Emperor Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty (211-206 B.C.), generals
and cavalrymen wear leather boots, while archers wear square-headed,
stitch-soled cloth shoes with a strap across the instep. This
shows that standardization of uniforms according to military
ranks and services had already been adopted at the time.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), military
boots were adapted for civilian wear and also became part
of the uniform for officials. Boots came in the two styles
of pointed or square-toes, the former being for everyday wear,
and the latter for court attendance. The soles of these boots
were made from 32 layers of cloth and were later used in the
making of the cloth shoes worn by the common people, which
have since become known as One-Thousand-Layered shoes. To
allow such soles to breathe, as well as being elastic, water-proof,
and warp-proof, 100 stitches per square inch of the sole were
required. On completion of this stitching, the sole would
be soaked in water at a temperature between 80 and 100 degrees
Centigrade, and would then be hammered, shaped and dried.
Today this style of shoe is still popular, abroad as well
as within China.
Silkworm breeding started about 5,000 years
ago in China. In the Shang Dynasty, some 3,000 years ago,
people learned how to weave silk cloth and color it with mineral
and plant dyes. The development of sericulture greatly influenced
Chinese shoe making, and colorful silk shoes gradually replaced
The ancient Chinese had many rules of etiquette
within their daily lives, which included their footwear. The
rules of the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 B.C.) stipulated that
people should take off their shoes before entering the house,
that shoes and socks should be removed at banquets, and that
ministers meeting with the emperor should also take off both
shoes and socks. However, bare feet were a taboo on occasions
of ceremonial worship.
ancient China, different shoes were worn to suit particular
occasions. Wedding shoes were either pink or red, and embroidered
with auspicious bird and floral patterns. In the Han Dynasty
(206 B.C.-A.D.220), brides wore wooden sandals painted with
floral patterns and tied with five colorful silk straps, and
Manchurian brides of the Qing Dynasty wore blue cloth shoes
embroidered with the red double "happiness" characters.
Shoes for the deceased were known as "Longevity
Shoes," relating to their future eternal wear in the
afterlife. Between 206 B.C. and A.D.420, upon their death,
all emperors wore jade shoes. In the Qing Dynasty, when an
emperor died, all his shoes were burned. When Emperor Guangxu
(1875-1909) died, 104 pairs of his shoes were cremated. For
ordinary people, Longevity Shoes came in blue, black or brown
for men, while women wore brightly colored embroidered shoes.
The soles would be embroidered with the pattern of a lotus
flower and a ladder, symbolizing the ascent of the departed
to heaven. However, older people who really were celebrating
their longevity and hoping for happy returns wore "Happy-Character"
shoes -- shoes embroidered with the Chinese character meaning
In feudal China, the social status of people
could be perceived from the shoes they wore. In the Southern
Dynasty (420-589), ordinary people were permitted to wear
straw or coarse-fiber cloth shoes colored in blue, green or
white only, while nobles wore leather and silk shoes. The
Western Jin (265-317) ruler, in his distaste for merchants,
and wishing them to be immediately distinguishable, decreed
that their footwear should comprise one black and one white
shoe. The Qing Dynasty stipulated that bright yellow footwear
was reserved solely for the emperor, golden yellow shoes were
for nobles, and those of an apricot-yellow shade were for
the common people.
The changes in Chinese shoe culture reflect
its close connection with the natural and geographical conditions
of China, and also manifest social, economic and cultural
changes, as well as the likes and dislikes of rulers and the
common people of different periods.