Main Types of Chinese Lotus Shoes

Pair of Chinese lotus shoes, second half 19th century. Pair of Chinese lotus shoes, second half 19th century. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. FE.49:1,2-1999.

For many centuries, Han Chinese women used to bind their feet and put them into tiny shoes, generally called lotus shoes. There were various types of lotus shoes, such as day-time shoes and boots, wedding or bridal shoes, sleeping or night socks, separate heels, bad weather forms, gift shoes, mourning shoes, as well as funeral shoes.

Day-time shoes and boots: these embroidered shoes and boots were made in various materials, such as cotton, wool or silk, and made in a variety of forms depending on where the woman’s family came from, how wealthy they were and what were the latest fashions. There were flat soled, low heeled, and high heeled forms, as well as wedged heel versions. Over the centuries fashions changed, so before the mid-seventeenth century most shoes were flat, but after this date fashionable shoes had heels that gradually increased in size. Such heels had the effect of making a foot look even smaller. The heels came in a variety of forms, from wedges to large roundels and pedestals. By the nineteenth century, heels had become relatively high and at the same time binding became tighter to create even smaller feet. The soles/heels supported the feet in a more efficient manner than flat soles and this may well have brought about the (decreasing) size of the foot following binding.

Wedding or bridal shoes: as the name suggests, these shoes were worn by the bride during the wedding ceremony. Normally they were predominately bright red in colour and made of silk or sometimes cotton. When they were decorated they had a simple embroidered or gold leaf decoration at the front of the shoe and sometimes on the soles. They were usually similar in shape to that of everyday shoes. The wedding shoes were worn by the bride during the festivities and in particular on her wedding night. A bride might bring numerous pairs of shoes to her wedding. Sometimes suggestive images were placed inside the ‘first night’ shoes to encourage the newly wed couple.

Sleeping or night socks: these are similar to the daily flat shoes, but made out of softer material and with a soft sole. They were often embroidered with a simple design on the sides and sole.

Separate heels: another form of embroidered lotus footwear consisted of round heels sewn onto a piece of cloth, which often had loops from the two top corners or ribbons sewn near to the top of the cloth panel. These were used, with the aid of separate ribbons, to bind the embroidered heels to the foot. It is not exactly clear exactly how the heels were worn and there are various theories, such as that they were bound to the outside of a pair of lotus shoes to give extra height, or that they were worn inside a pair of lotus shoes for the same purpose. However, why would they be decorated if they were placed inside another shoe and could not be seen? Another suggestion is that when a woman got out of bed she might wear these heels until she got dressed.

Bad weather forms: there were various types of shoes and boots for bad weather, usually made of thick materials such as felt or leather. There were special types for when it was raining and others for walking in muddy streets. The latter normally had wooden soles studded with little iron or wooden pegs (cleats). During winter time, pattens with iron spikes were fastened to the soles of the shoes so that the women could walk on icy paths. These overshoes were often decorated with a little embroidery.

Gift shoes: girls and women often made pairs of embroidered shoes as gifts for family members, notably (future) mothers–in-law. Sometimes these shoes were directly given, on other occasions they were sent to the recipients. Such shoes were also intended as gifts for friends as a symbol of friendship and respect when they parted due to the girls getting married. In addition, in the Cantonese region there was a special event called the 'Ceremony of the Seven Heavenly Maidens', during which shoes were laid on miniature, altar furniture. The intention was for young women to pledge their friendship to each other like the 'seven sisters'.

Mourning shoes: these are special mourning shoes in white, which were worn by women after someone’s death. These were either pure white with a minimum amount of decoration, or white with white or grey embroidery. Slowly, with the passing of time after the person’s death, these shoes became more and more colourful.

Funeral shoes: Based on archaeological examples, notably shoes from the tomb of the Ming Empress Xiaojing and those of earlier women, such as Huang Sheng (1227-1243) and Madame Zhou (1240-1274), as well as later written and verbal accounts, it would appear that the deceased was also dressed in lotus shoes. By the early twentieth century, special shoes were made by women for their funerals. They were made out of dark blue cotton with no embroidery, except on the soles of the shoes. These were often decorated with an embroidered or painted lotus blossom, sometimes with a ladder. Together these forms symbolized a continual climb to heaven, with the lotus representing the concept of ‘continuity', and the ladder the ‘climb.’ These were usually kept in a safe place until required.

See also he TRC Needles entries on lotus shoe exhibition at the TRClotus shoes sole embroidery, and a pair of lotus shoes.

See also the TRC digital exhibition Chinese lotus shoes (TRC, Leiden 2018).


  • CHANG, Pang-Mei Natasha (1997). Bound Feet and Western Dress, New York: Anchor Books
  • JACKSON, Beverley (1997). Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press
  • KO, Dorothy (2005). Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Foot binding, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • ROBERTS, Glenn and Valerie STEELE (1977). 'The three-inch golden lotus: A collection of Chinese bound foot shoes,' Arts of Asia, 27, no. 2, 1977, pp. 69-85.
  • WANG Ping (2002), Aching for Beauty: Foot binding in China, New York: Anchor Books.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 20th June 2016).


Last modified on Wednesday, 25 April 2018 08:10