Chinese Slippers for Bound Feet

Original content by: Macy Kleinfelder

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About This Artifact

Around the turn of the 19th century, the United States turned its maritime sights to the Far East.  While the United States was primarily interested in trade with China, the exchange that took place was more cultural than economic. Consequently, these slippers would not be a valuable trade commodity. Rather they represent an interest in Chinese culture that developed throughout the nineteenth century.

The custom of binding feet to prevent growth began during the Song dynasty (around the 10th century). It is generally accepted that the tradition began with the dancers in the royal court who would wear silk socks with narrow strips of silk wrapped around. The practice first began among the elite and by the 17th century became more common place. The length of the foot is most important and a perfectly bound foot was three inches or less. The style and design of a slipper can be very telling about the geographical location and lifestyle of the owner.

While there was some symbolism in the patterns embroidered, it was also an activity of creativity.  Common designs include mountaintops, songbirds, flowers, trees, pagodas, dragons, and bees. In addition, the sole of the slipper was often embroidered (as is the case with these slippers).  This, too, was indicative of a higher social class, because the embroidery was done just in case the bottom of the slipper was seen by a guest.  

Red is the color for festive occasions, such as weddings and New Year celebrations.  Red is also a symbol for virtue and was often the choice for the first slipper designed for a young girl (it is generally the most common color of slippers found by collectors).  The color blue had no confining rules.  These slippers are embroidered with the buds of lotus flowers, which is a symbol for purity and beauty. In addition, there appears to be a dragonfly.  One unique element of these slippers is what appears to be a young girl. Embroidery of people is very uncommon.  Lastly, the sole appears to have a lotus flower design as well.

A number of factors led to the end of tradition of foot binding in the twentieth century. The binding of feet was seen by the western world as a cruel and inhumane tradition. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries missionaries campaigned to put an end to this tradition. Additionally, the humanistic approach of Confucianism led to calls for reform.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. To whom do you think these slippers belonged? How do you know?
  2. What is the significance of the images on the slippers and the colors used?
  3. Why is the tradition of foot binding significant to the history of Chinese culture?