Embroidered insoles in modern China

Insole is a common type of foot wear in China, hidden but full of meanings. The fact that it is hidden from sight doesn’t lessen its exquisiteness in craftsmanship and its richness in cultural meanings. It perfectly exemplifies the combination of aesthetics and functions. Originally used for maintaining feet sanitation (help absorb moisture) and comfort (improve thermal insulation and give feet massage while walking) as well as protecting shoes from abrasions, insoles graduate as a carrier of love, a letter of good wishing, a book of cultural symbols and a peephole to women’s sentiments, lives and aspirations . It is the art under the feet.

Insoles materialize the bonding between family members, lovers and friends. When a woman married into a new family, she would give exquisitely embroidered self-made Hebao (tiny hanging belt bags for small daily objects) or insoles to her new family members to formalize her relationship with them(Liang, Wei,& Cui, 2007). Embroidered insole  also plays the role of a love token. Women embedded their affection into every thread and every stitch to form resplendent patterns, entrusting her sentiments to the insole. A typical metaphoric pattern for romance is “butterfly in love flower”.

“In old days’ Yellow river delta area, girls give their lovers a pair of embroidered shoes or insoles as a token of love. On the insole, they embroidered a character Zheng (integrity), meaning his integrity will overcome any evil forces, striding triumphantly over hardships and frustrations. Meanwhile, they will also embroider a trim resembling the character Hui (coming back), wishing their lovers who are away from home would come back to them sooner.” (Liang, Wei,& Cui, 2007)

Patterns employed on insoles can be flowers, birds, insects, mythological or religious figures and Chinese characters—all rich in cultural meanings.

The pattern “one stem, double locus” has rich religious meaning. Locus flower is the holy flower for both Buddhism and Daoism, representing the good and the kind; on the other hand, in folk culture, double locus on one stem is frequently used to symbolize pure and committed love, on top of which, the locus flower with intertwined roots, exuberant leaves and abundant seeds and makes the most graphic emblem for abounding off-springs and forever-thriving families(Liang, 2007; Zheng& Zhu, 2008).

“Mandarin duck with locus flower” is another popular pattern on insoles. Mandarin duck is a lucky bird in traditional culture who always comes in pairs, which makes it the ideal model for loving couples. According to classic ancient document the Book of Birds, Mandarin ducks always swim in pairs, they lean on each other in the morning while cross their necks and overlap their wings at night; if one lose its spouse, he/she would keep single forever (L.Liu; Zheng&Zhu, 2008).  Therefore, Mandarin ducks symbolize committed love. On insoles, Mandarin ducks are usually companied by locus flowers, conveying a wish for unwavering love and healthy kids.

Phoenix is an auspicious bird in Chinese mythology, “Phoenix represents honorable women just like Dragon represents prominent men”. In ancient mythology, the advent of phoenix will bring world peace and harmony. Oninsoles, phoenix is welcomed to pair with peony flowers, for Chinese people believe phoenix is the queen of all birds while peony is the queen of all flowers. Their combination emblemize high social status and prosperity, which is further extended to flourish of lives.

“Magpie at the door” is a pattern for good luck. Magpie in Chinese means literally “lucky bird” and is culturally believed to be able to bring good luck. The flower on the insoles is plum blossom whose Chinese name is homophonic to “door” in Chinese. So lucky bird on plum blossom sounds just like “lucky bird at the door” in Chinese. Therefore, this pair of insoles carries the maker’s or the wearer’s wish to possess good luck.

Sometimes good wishes are expressed directly through words. The pair of insoles with four embroidered characters shows a theme of “having treasures”. The characters on the left and right insole respectively means “attracting treasures and gathering treasures” while at the heel section situates a “treasure bottle gourd” which is a mythological object that can suck in and hold infinite treasure. Interestingly, “bottle gourd” in Chinese is homophonic with “happiness and money” (Fu Lu) which further strengthen the theme of “having treasure” of this pair of insoles.

In modern China, while traditional cultural motifs, symbols and patterns have subsided in mainstream fashion (retreated to either extreme high-end or low-end fashion), the hidden-fashion under people’s feet thrived. You can see business men in suit and tie putting on his black leather shoes a pair of insoles with characters meaning “good luck with every steps” or “attracting treasures and happiness” that are hand-made by his mother on the countryside; you don’t have to be surprised when you see a modern urban girl with avant-garde style showing a glance of China Red while taking off her shoes. The insoles are the bond between rural and urban when mothers and grandmothers stitch their love for their sons and sons of others into the insoles. It is a miraculous path tradition managed to make into the ever-changing modern cities. Different from other types of clothing, insoles are hardly meant for viewers, they are for the wearer themselves; they are between the maker and the wearers; they are less ambiguous because they are more personal and private; they are hidden for they represent something inside—aspiration, wishes, faith and love.

Liang, H., Wei, N., & Cui, R. (2007). The Modern Embroidered Insole of Qilu Area. Art & Design(169), 86-87.

Liu, Y. (2010). On Artistic Characters of Folk Manual Embroider Shoe Insoles in Bayu Region 论巴渝地区民间手工绣花鞋垫的艺术特色. Colleges(5).

Zheng, J., & Zhu, X. (2008). Traditional Culture on Embroidered Insoles 绣花鞋垫中的中国传统文化研究. Art&Nation&Culture 民族,艺术,文化(2), 125.

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About Yuchen

First year graduate student in Textile and Clothing, UC Davis. Interested in bridging fashion, art and material through studying the practice of authentic Chinese fashion.
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3 Responses to Embroidered insoles in modern China

  1. nancyguancn says:

    Great work Yuchen! I found you via Rebecca’s post on Etsy. The post about the insole work revoked so much memory of my childhood, when I had a little pillow made by my grandma. She has stitched two beautiful and vivid golden fishes(a very traditional pattern) on it and I still kept the pillow till now… The craft work is really a bond between the rural and the urban, the old and the young. Now I’m a professional in ecommerce industry with a focus on female’s fashion. I also have a strong interest in fashion(I’m leaning to call it “style”) and look forward to more great works from you to introduce China’s culture to the world! It will be great to connect with you:
    Weibo: http://weibo.com/guanguanly


  2. Ena says:

    Reblogged this on Chambre de bonne and commented:
    I’ve had a bit of trouble finding info on embroidered insoles online, and finally I came across this post. Informative with lots of pretty photos. Woo hoo


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