Footwear of Early Asian Cultures

The Chinese were one of the first ancient peoples to develop a wide range of footwear. Shoes made from woven and stitched straw have been dated to about 5000 B.C.E. and tanned leather footwear with stitching has been dated to about 2000 B.C.E. Given the wide ranges of climate found in China, the types of shoes worn varied considerably by region. People in the warmer coastal areas wore straw sandals, while those in the colder mountainous regions wore thick leather shoes and knee-length boots.

A woman wearing traditional platform shoes. Reproduced by permission of © .

Over time the Chinese developed a complex form of etiquette associated with footwear. Shoes were worn only outdoors and taken off when entering any house. For some occasions socks could remain on the feet, but others required that the person go barefoot indoors. The Chinese developed several other distinct footwear traditions. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911 C.E. ), women favored Manchu shoes, which consisted of a silk slipper attached to a tall wooden sole that narrowed to a small base in the middle of the foot. The small base of the shoe and its height—as high as four inches—required women to walk very carefully. These shoes remained in use into the twentieth century and were considered a distinctly Chinese alternative to Western high heels.

Perhaps the best-known Chinese footwear custom is foot binding. The custom of foot binding began late in the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E. ) and lasted for more than a thousand years. It involved constricting the feet of young girls with very tight bandages, forcing the heel and toe to be drawn together. At its worst, foot binding broke the bones in the feet. In every case it permanently deformed the feet. Yet it allowed women to wear the coveted lotus shoes, and many believed that it made women's feet beautiful. The custom finally ended in part because westerners scorned the practice as barbaric when they encountered it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Japanese adopted the Chinese custom of not wearing shoes indoors, and in turn they developed several specific shoe styles of their own. For indoor use, Japanese of all classes wore tabis, socks specially made to fit the distinctive shoes of the Japanese. For outdoor use the Japanese wore geta, sandals with two raised platforms for the heels, and zori, simple sandals with flat soles.


Bian, Pang. "A History of Shoes." . (accessed on July 29, 2003).

Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Foot Binding and Lotus Shoes

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