China's great cultural diversity, ancient history, and traditionally stratified society are all reflected in the multitude of its footwear styles. The colour, material, shape, size, and embellishment of shoes, boots, slippers, sandals, and clogs all played roles in expressing a person's social status or role.

Shoes and sandals made of wood, textile, and vegetable fibres were generally worn by the labouring classes, while simple cloth shoes with layered soles were donned by the average citizen. In contrast, the foot coverings of the upper classes were made with sumptuous silks, delicately embroidered with auspicious symbols.

Footbinding, the now-banned thousand-year-old practice of binding women's feet to prevent growth, resulted in the making of tiny, highly decorative "lotus" shoes called gin lien. Manchurian women did not bind their feet, but often wore shoes with a single, column-like pedestal which gave them an elegant gait and high stature.

Shoes for little boys might be decorated with the faces of tigers and other lucky animals to protect them from harmful influences. Boots worn for classic opera, frequently with high platforms, were often fantastic creations intended to help convey a performer's character to the audience.

For conservation reasons, and in order to show more variety over time, only a selection of footwear from the permanent collection is displayed in our exhibitions at any one time. This means there's always something new to see.

image of Chinese footwear