Manchu horse-hoof shoes: Footwear and cultural identity

Shengfang Chou
Masters Student, V&A/RCA History of Design


Manchu horse-hoof shoe, Musuem no. LOST 110/FE.1 9/11,3,2

Figure 1 - Manchu horse-hoof shoe, China (Quing Dynasty), about 1900. Silk with silk embroidery, hemp covered wooden heel. 12.5x 22.5x 8.5 cm. Museum no. LOST 110/FE.1 9/11,3,2

The Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the last empire in Chinese history, was ruled by the Manchus, a nomadic group that came from the north. Much of what we know today as Chinese material culture developed during this period. This includes objects related to Manchu dress, such as the long robe called a qipao and Han Chinese footwear, including the footbinding shoe.

This article was inspired by a Qing dynasty pair of Manchu 'horse-hoof' shoes in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 1). The Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the last empire in Chinese history, was ruled by the Manchus, a nomadic group that came from the north. Much of what we know today as Chinese material culture developed during this period. This includes objects related to Manchu dress, such as the long robe called a 'qipao' ( ) and Han Chinese footwear, including the footbinding shoe. (1)

Although footwear has a long and complex history in China, Western scholars and collectors have focused their interests on the Han Chinese footbinding shoe rather than the 'naturally' sized Manchu 'horse-hoof' sole shoe. Why has the Manchu's 'qipao' become a Chinese icon, while the footwear worn by Manchu women has been ignored or regarded as invisible under the long robe?

In this paper, through an investigation of a pair of Manchu women's 'horse-hoof' shoes, I will explore the relationship between Manchu and Han Chinese women's footwear. I will do this first by analysing the artefacts and the way in which objects like these feature inChinese materials of the period and secondary works on Manchu studies; and secondly by using evidence provided by ethnographic observations of the recent past and comparing aspects of Manchu and Han Chinese cultures. In this way we can investigate whether the Manchu 'horse-hoof' sole shoe had any impact on the Han Chinese's footbinding shoe and to what degree there was an 'interactive acculturation' between Manchu and Han Chinese cultures. (2)

Object analysis

Each shoe consists of two separate parts: a fabric upper and a wooden heel. With a sole at the bottom made of hemp-covered wood supporting a decorative embroidered upper, the shoe comprises two contrasting kinds of materials. The heel has a slightly curved 'horse-hoof' ('mati' 馬蹄 ) shape. The bottom of the sole was padded with layers of cotton, suggesting that the shoe would have been worn indoors or only on special occasions. Even though the toes are slightly pointed, the right and left shoes are interchangeable.

According to art historian Verity Wilson, 'the embroidered uppers were often made by women at home, and these decorated parts were sent out to a professional cobbler to be made up'. (3)  In Han Chinese society, shoe making was divided according to gender: male workers mostly fashioned the wooden parts, while women did the embroidery. However, there has been little study of the origins and development of Manchu shoes. Historical texts tell us that Manchu women never bound their feet and that Manchus traditionally made shoes out of wood. (Tradition also holds that the thick-soled shoe was first created by a goddess to keep off the dust and insects when she had to walk in the mud.) When Manchu dress and hairstyle were reshaped in the mid-nineteenth century, 'horse-hoof' shoes became important accessories in Manchu fashion. In 1848, Chinese historian Fu Ge (福格 ) described the Manchu style as consisting of a 'qipao,' high-heeled shoes, and hairstyles such as the 'liangbatou' (兩把頭 ). This ensemble made Manchu women appear taller, and led their bodies to move with a free, confident and swaying motion, called 'enuoduozhi' (婀挪多姿), which Fu Ge contrasted to Han Chinese women's delicate and fragile beauty.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's collection has several pairs of Manchu 'horse-hoof' shoes. One pair is covered with blue satin and has lace edges, evidence of the importation of Western material culture after the Opium war with Britain in 1842, when China was forced to shift its trade policy to open the port to western goods. A pair of male shoes in the collection has uppers of black-dyed cotton, with a geometric weave of varying stitched designs. These have thicker soles but the same edged satin stitch as the women's pair discussed in this essay. According to Chinese fashion historian Valery M. Garrett, this black-edged satin stitch (which also appears on Manchu gowns) was adopted because it was easier to care for, as the stitching providing more strength at the border of the textile. It was the popular style for over two hundred years in the south of China, particularly in Guangdong, and later became the popular standard style for the labouring class during the 1920s and the 1930s. (4)

The 'big feet' of Manchu women

'Even though Manchu women don't bind their feet, they wear a special shoe to indicate the symbol of [the Han women's] tiny feet', wrote the British missionary Gilbert Wills at the end of the nineteenth-century. (5) This contention, perhaps a reflection of the Han Chinese viewpoint of Manchu women's shoes at that time, has had a strong influence on the study of Chinese women's footwear. Sun Yan-Zhen, in her recent book, 'Women's Fashion Studies in Qing Dynasty', asserts that the 'horse-hoof' sole of the Manchu shoe can be seen to be imitating features of the Han Chinese footbinding shoe. (6)  The Manchu 'horse-hoof' shoe emphasizes the Manchu woman's 'natural' feet, called 'heavenly feet' ('tianzu' 天足 ) or simply 'big feet' ('dajiou' 大腳 ), as opposed to the Han Chinese women's bound foot, which was given the poetic name 'sancun jinlian'(三寸金蓮 ), meaning 'three inch golden lotus'.

The implications and usage of the terms 'tianzu' and 'dajiou' should be clarified. It is unclear exactly why Chinese people were describing Manchu women's natural or unbound feet as 'heavenly', but it should be noted that 'tianzu' was a term of foreign inspiration, first voiced in 1875 when British missionary John MacGowan held a meeting of the Heavenly Foot Society of Amoy (Xiamen). It was an early anti-footbinding campaign that later contributed to the Republican Chinese feminism movement in the 1920s. (7) 'Tianzu' was actually a term deployed to criticize the practice of footbinding. As Dorothy Ko explains, 'The significance of the category tianzu lies in the transnational context of its birth and its overt Christian justification'. (8) I will therefore avoid the historical anachronism of 'tianzu,' instead using the term 'dajiou' (大腳) or 'big feet'. Recounted by Chinese ethnographer Zhou Hong, a folk song called 'Making shoes', from a Manchu village of Liaoning province, makes humorous use of the term. (9)

Looking for a woodworker to make a shoe heel
Looking for a woodworker to make a shoe sole
Using a roll and half of satin thread, using eight boxes of silk
Spending three years finally making a shoe
Calling a girl to try it on, neither too short nor too long
Big feet (dajiou) small shoe hard to fit it on
The girl's left foot could crush eight tigers
The girl's right foot could crush nine wolves. (10)

Hezhe women, Huangqing Zhigong Tu

Figure 2 - Hezhe women, Huangqing Zhigong Tu, China, Qing Dynasty, about 1755-1761. Ink on paper, 20 x 13.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China

In Manchu society, women rode horses and hunted. (11) In a print by Huangqing Zhigong Tu (fig. 2),which depictsa Manchu woman hunting, the Chinese inscription in the upper left corner describes her as a 'Hezhe woman'. This woman belonged to one branch of the Manchu ethnic group called the Hezhe (???? ), from Heilongjia province. In the picture we can see that she wears a winter leather robe, with belt and fastened long stock. She also wears gloves and natural-sized shoes. At the left side of the print are depicted a small crossbow and a marten she has killed. As a tribute to the Qing government, the Hezhe group had to send marten skins every year. This picture indicates that Manchu women had to hunt as much as any men in their tribe. It also suggests that Manchu women's 'big feet' were requirements of their traditional nomadic life. (12) Once the Manchus established themselves as the rulers of China, they attempted to preserve their culture, and difference from Han Chinese, with a restriction against footbinding.

Shoes, body and space

The 'horse-hoof' shoe was not only fashionable among Manchu women, but also made them appear taller; the shoe reshaped the body. Together with the new longer 'qipao,' it brought an alternative standard for feminine beauty that contrasted with the bodily aesthetic of Han Chinese women. The 'horse-hoof' shoe and the 'qipao' seem to indicate that Manchu women were not only conscious of their different ethnicity to that of Han Chinese women, but also of their appearance. The significance of Han Chinese elite women's fashion was related to their footbinding. The female body was an object to be seen, a fact signalled not only by dress and footwear but also by the very way they walked and moved.

A particular design issue that arose in this context was how Manchu women could perform their femininity while wearing 'a long Daoist robe.' The design of their shoes was closely related to their mode of dress through movement. Han Chinese women were supposed to walk discreetly, while the Manchu 'qipao' and high-soled, noisy shoes made their wearers more conspicuous when they were walking. Some courtesans' and wealthy women's shoes were ornamented with jewels and bells in order to draw still further attention to them when walking.

Economic factors: womanly work and footbinding

Fashionable adaptation and influence were both the result of interactions between Manchu and Han Chinese women. Dorothy Ko has argued that the bans Manchu rulers issued on footbinding brought the opposite effect, causing the practice to become an ethnic marker and to spread among Han Chinese of all classes. (13) The catalysts for the spread of footbinding were twofold. As Ko argues, 'Two deliberate policies of the Manchu state might have inadvertently contributed to its popularity among non-elite families: the futile early-Qing efforts to ban footbinding as a signpost of Han Chinese identity and the eighteenth-century promotion of the cotton industry in rural areas'. (14) This argument shows how material culture links up with economic, political, and ideological formations. Susan Mann has suggested that 'we can plausibly assume that…the desirability of footbinding and spread of women's home handicrafts in peasant households were systematically linked'. (15)

In Qing economic policy, women were encouraged to undertake spinning and weaving of cotton at home. (In the coastal area of China, cotton was of more economic benefit than rice.) In some areas, like Nanhui County near Shanghai, peasant women played an important role in supporting the family economy, by toiling in the fields on a seasonal basis. This raises the possibility that footbinding helped some women to avoid work in the fields. The 'Nanhui County Gazetteer' depicts the situation of womanly work in the nineteenth-century as follows:

The women weave in order to supplement the [family] income and provide clothing and food. This is true not just for village settlements but also for the townships.... The rate of woven cloth is one bolt (pi) per day but sometimes they can reach two bolts per day. They [women] work through the night without sleeping. The income men earn from the harvest of the fields goes to official coffers to pay interest and is exhausted before the year has even come to an end. For their food and clothing [the family] relies utterly on [the work of] women. (16)

Women sewing, watercolour on paper, about 1790. Museum no.D.124-1898

Figure 3 - Women sewing, China (Qing Dynasty), about 1790. Watercolour on paper, 35 x 42 cm. Museum no. D.124-1898

This suggests that economic policy may have helped to spread the practice of footbinding in Han Chinese society. Traditionally, women were not allowed to join outdoor activities in feudal Han Chinese society; footbinding practices enforced this belief and ensured that they work at home. Wilson states, 'We know, however, that in 1881 there were 1,050 working people in Suzhou engaged in embroidery work and that these were principally women and young girls'. (17) She shows us a watercolour painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 3 ), depicting a woman embroidering: a well-dressed lady wearing footbinding shoes is doing domestic embroidery. This picture reveals that these feet are also for working. Women might prefer to work at home rather than in the fields. (18)

While Qing policy may have lead to the increase of Han Chinese women who bound their feet, some may have done so in the hope of changing their social class by copying upper class women's footbinding. As Georg Simmel argued, 'In a certain sense fashion gives woman a compensation for her lack of position in a class based on a calling or profession'. (19) In this case, Han Chinese peasant women's footbinding fashion was unlikely to change their working situation to have an 'easy' life. Simmel continues, 'Naturally the lower classes look and strive to towards the upper, and they encounter the least resistance in those fields which are subject to the whims of fashion; for it is here that mere external imitation is most readily applied'. (20) In this way, dress and fashion allow humans to express themselves, showing both who they are and what they want to be.

Politics: the impact of the 'xiunu' system

There were several occasions when the Qing government tried to stop the Han custom of women's footbinding. All failed; indeed, the practice increased. However, at the same time Manchu and Han Chinese exchanged and shared fashion styles and motifs.

The position of women in China was paradoxical: on the one hand, Han Chinese women occupied positions in economic production, but on the other, they were supposed to be invisible in public social life. (21) Most Manchu or Han women did not receive a proper education. As Lan Dingyuan wrote in 1712, 'The basis of the government of the empire lies in the habits of the people. The correctness of the habits of the people depends on the orderly management of the family; the way (Dao) for the orderly management of the family begins with women'. (22)

In Manchu society, marriage was not only managed by the family but also controlled by the government. In the Qing dynasty, young Manchu women were required to join the imperial selection before a marriage could be arranged by their family. The system was called 'xiunu' (?? ), which can be literally translated as 'elegant females' or 'beautiful females' in the Chinese language (in Manchu, the term was 'sargan jui,' meaning simply 'the daughters'). (23) On the appointed day, girls aged 13 were brought by their parents or relatives, together with their official local banner, to the Forbidden City to await selection for the imperial court. One of the key points of the 'xiunu' system was that all the women being inspected had to be Manchu. (24)

Did the 'xiunu' system have a direct impact on Han Chinese women's footbinding? According to Shou Wang's recent study of the 'xiunu' system, 'Later in 1804 the Jiaqing emperor found some xiunu even had bound feet, wore only one earring (the Manchus customarily wore three ear-rings in each ear), and wore wide-sleeve robe like Chinese women. As a result, the Qing court narrowed down the scope of xiunu the selection to exclude some of Hanjun's (the eighth banner of the Manchus) daughters (women from Manchu-Han Chinese intermarriage family) from xiunu selection'. In the Manchu's 'xiunu' system, Manchu women were concerned not only with their bloodline but also with their behaviour and dress.

Han Chinese women were absent from the 'xiunu' beauty pageant because of their ethnic origin; and their exclusion was partly determined by their footwear. They were not considered as 'daughters' of the Qing government. Wang states that the 'xiunu' system was created under these specific historical circumstances in order to emphasize ethnic boundaries and to guarantee that the right women were selected for imperial marriage. Thus, footwear not only shows the cultural exchange between Manchu and Han Chinese women, but also the Qing government's efforts to draw boundaries between them. As Wang concludes, the 'xiunu' system 'helped minimize Han Chinese cultural influence in the inner court and slow down the speed of acculturation'. (25)


In Qing studies, scholars often talk of the 'sinicization' or 'assimilation' of Manchus. Evelyn S. Rawski notes that the key to Qing Manchu success, 'lay in its ability to use its cultural links with the non-Han peoples of Inner Asia and to differentiate the administration of the non-Han reign provinces'. Qing established cultural forms to distinguish themselves from the Han Chinese. Recently, in the study of material culture, Dorothy Ko has brought a fresh recognition of the role of Han Chinese footbinding in the Qing period by considering women's voices instead of a 'cultureless custom'.

The study of Manchu footwear can also be situated in this new discourse. It evolved at political, economic, gender, class, and social levels, and involved interactions between ethnic groupings. The matter of footwear was an appropriation of space, as well as of the object itself. With a long Han Chinese footbinding history, Han Chinese women were unlikely to change their footwear. As Ko has argued, it is not possible to speak of the 'free choice' of Han Chinese women's footbinding without consideration of the Confucian patriarchy. For Han Chinese literati, footbinding involved not only pressure from the outside world but also women's self-respect. Furthermore, she states, 'Without the participation of women, footbinding would not have spread so far in the face of persistent and vehement opposition by moralizing and pontificating men'. (26) Han Chinese women may not have had the choice not to bind their feet, but in binding them they may have been consciously resisting the Manchu 'elegant women' selection system.

By the same token, by not binding their feet and instead wearing the 'horse-hoof' shoe, Manchu women were declaring their own ethnic identity. In turn, this may have led more and more Han Chinese women to bind their feet during the late Qing dynasty. In other words, there was mutual negative influence in culture and design. The Manchus had consciously slowed down the speed of Han Chinese acculturation by creating a cultural border between Manchu and Han Chinese women through the 'xiunu' system. (27) Thus, the Manchu 'horse-hoof' shoe was not only a physical object, but also played a mediating role in society. The shoe was a way to evoke elegance and cultural identity through the 'xiunu' system. Thus, the 'xiunu' system was a cultural policy, not just a political policy. It enhanced the fashion competition between Manchu and Han Chinese women. The 'horse-hoof' shoe unlocks multiple narratives about the impact of footwear on Chinese material culture.


(1) On the 'qipao', see Steele, Valerie and John S. Major. China Chic/East Meets West. New Haven and London, 1999. On footbinding, see Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005.

(2) This term is borrowed from Bourhis, Richard Y. 'Towards an Interactive Acculturation Model: A Social Psychological Approach'. International Journal of Psychology 32: 6 (1997): 369-386.

(3) Wilson, Verity. Chinese Dress. London, 1986: 98.

(4) Garrett, Valery M. Traditional Chinese Clothing in Hong Kong and South China, 1840-1980. Hong Kong and Oxford, 1987: 73.

(5) Willis, Gilbert and Henry Raymond. Lonhqixia de chenmin: Jin dai Zhonggio lisu yu shehui
龙旗下的臣民: 近代中国礼俗与社会 trans. by Liu Yi Jun  刘一君, Deng Hai Ping 邓海平. Guangming ribao chubanshen 光明日报出版社, 2000: 129

(6) Yan-Zhen, Sun. Qingdai nuxing fushi yanjiu: 清代女性服飾研究 (Women's Fashion Studies in Qing Dynasty). Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 上海古籍出版, 2008: 105.

(7) Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005: 14, 67.

(8) Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005: 5, 16.

(9) Hong, Zhou. Manzufunu shenghuo yu minsuwenhua yanjin: 滿族婦女生活與民俗文化研究 (Zhingguo shehuikexue chubanshe 中國社會科學出版社. China Social Sciences press, 2005: 96.

(10) 《作繡鞋》找個木匠繡鞋底,找個木匠做鞋幫,絨線用了一板半,細布用了八皮箱,一共做了三年整,一雙繡鞋作妥當,叫來姑娘把鞋試,還是短來還是長,姑娘伸腳試繡鞋,鞋小腳大紮得慌,趔趔歪歪倒后牆,左腳踩死八只虎,右腳踩死九只狼 Translated from the Chinese by Shengfang Chou.

(11) Hong, Zhou. Manzufunu shenghuo yu minsuwenhua yanjin: 滿族婦女生活與民俗文化研究 (Zhingguo shehuikexue chubanshe 中國社會科學出版社. China Social Sciences press, 2005: 71.

(12) Manchu. 'Hezhe surname genealogy' introduction, [accessed 05 January 2009]. The Qing dynasty maintained the Hezhe as a hunting group. Due to the increase in population of the Hezhe at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Qing government encouraged them to develop an agricultural policy instead of hunting.

(13) Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005: 266.

(14) Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005: 133.

(15) Quoted by Dorothy, Ko. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley and London, 2005: 266.

(16) Nanhui xian zhi. 南匯懸志. Nanhui County gazetteer, 1879 Compiled by Zhang Wenhu, 3 vols. Facsimile of original. Taipei: Chengwen, chubanshe. Reprinted in 1970, quoted by Mclaren and Qinjian, p.212.

(17) Wilson, Verity. Chinese Dress. London, 1986: 106.

(18) McLaren, Anne and Chen Qinjian. 'The Oral and Ritual Culture of Chinese Women Bridal Lamentations of Nanhui'. Asian Folklore Studies 59: 2 (2000): 212.

(19) Simmel, Georg. 'Fashion'. The American Journal of Sociology 103 (1957): 551.

(20) Simmel, Georg. 'Fashion'. The American Journal of Sociology 103 (1957): 555-558.

(21) Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender : Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley and London, 1997: 243.

(22) Lan Dingyuan's Nu xue, quoted in Bray, 1997: 243.

(23) 'Xiunu' in Manchu is called 'sargan jui', simply meaning 'the daughters.' Mark Elliott points out that the Chinese term is more sophisticated than it is in Manchu language. Elliott, Mark C. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, 2001: 473, note 84. Quoted by Shou Wang (2004), pp.212-222

(24) Wang, Shou. 'The Selection of Women for the Qing Imperial Harem'. The Chinese Historical Review 11: 2 (2004): 212-222.

(25) Wang, Shou. 'The Selection of Women for the Qing Imperial Harem'. The Chinese Historical Review 11: 2 (2004): 212-220

(26) Wang, Shou. 'The Selection of Women for the Qing Imperial Harem'. The Chinese Historical Review 11: 2 (2004): 228-229

(27) Wang, Shou. 'The Selection of Women for the Qing Imperial Harem'. The Chinese Historical Review 11: 2 (2004): 212-222