China has 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 “shoes culture”. Footwear is an interesting facet of the many aspects of Chinese culture.
From “Foot Clothing” to Leather Boots
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
While 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 healthy shoes 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 straw shoes.
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, shape ups shoesand 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.
In 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 MBT shoes Chinese character meaning “happiness.”
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 ofskechers shoesan 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.
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