Wearing lotus shoes was a unique footwear style in ancient China worn by Han women. They were named lotus shoes as women’s tiny feet were likened to the golden lotus flower. These distorted feet were highly valued in ancient China and were thought to be linked to beauty, virtuousness, preciousness and auspiciousness. Foot-binding was a custom that encouraged wrapping up women's feet with cloth for the purpose of shaping them to be unnaturally small and sharp. It originated in the late Northern Song Dynasty, and grew in popularity during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, before ultimately became generally accepted as the female fashion and aesthetic standard for the whole of society in the Qing Dynasty. It was also the golden age of Chinese ceramic development during which craft and art reached the highest level. Concurrently, porcelain was being used extensively and it became popular to replicate various daily rituals and traditions in porcelain, with a high level of realism. Porcelain-made lotus shoes began being made by imitating the embroidered shoes for the appreciation of male scholars. The shoes not only revealed the multiple ceramic techniques that were popular in the Qing Dynasty, but also exposed the spiritual and aesthetic appeal men had for the shoes (and the feet they produced) disassociating themselves from the plight of women who were objectified and oppressed in the patriarchal society.
The History of Porcelain-made Lotus Shoes
As derivatives of the foot-binding culture, the inspiration of porcelain-made lotus shoes came from wine serving games in which male scholars used embroidered lotus shoes as wine cups while carousing and playing in brothels. A note in the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, records a story of a scholar in the late Yuan Dynasty, named Yang Tieya, who drank wine from the lotus shoes – and his behavior was imitated.1 It is inferred that the performance of using prostitutes' shoes for wine drinking began in the late Yuan Dynasty when the custom of foot-binding was gradually becoming popular in society. However, the lotus shoes got wet with wine cups in them, hence the craftsmen of Jindezhen in Jiangxi Province began to make and fire golden lotus wine cups in the shape of embroidered lotus shoes.
The invention of golden lotus wine cups led to them being made from porcelain that grew in popularity with that of binding feet in the middle of the Qing Dynasty. The form of the lotus shoe grew from the wine cup to the production of stationary appliances that male scholars used, including water pots and incense burners.
The water pots were used to add water to ink-stones, which were one the most important stationery appliances alongside writing brushes, ink sticks, ink slabs and papers, the Four Treasures of the Study. Incense diffusers were also beloved objects for scholars as it was a refined pleasure for scholars since the pre-Qin Era to burn incense in their studies. Water pots and incense diffusers had in common the fact that they both had ornamental value as well as functionality. The shoe-shaped water pots and incense diffusers were more exquisite and classical in shape and decoration compared with golden lotus wine cups, as they were placed on the writing desks of the scholars reflecting their temperament and taste.
Starting as wine cups in brothels and ending in scholars’ studies, the development of porcelain-made lotus shoes reflects the fanaticism and worship of society to the foot-binding culture. At that time, a pair of tiny feet not only had aesthetic value, but also represented the morality and chastity of women, which was a significant benchmark for a male to evaluate a female.
Porcelain-made lotus shoes remained popular until the end of the autocratic monarchy in the Qing Dynasty, when the cultural status of foot-binding was impacted by the rising of the anti-foot-binding movement. As a result, the popularity of porcelain-made lotus shoes gradually faded. With the abolition of the imperial examination system, scholars could no longer pursue their official careers and generally began to play games as a way of life. To that end, the appreciation of lotus shoes represented their nostalgic feelings and spiritual values. With the entry of a brand-new era (the 20th Century) the status and power of women was continually upgraded, and these outdated connoisseurs became the objects of criticism. Meanwhile, foot-binding culture and its derivatives lost their existence and disappeared in history.
Lotus shoes were described as ‘speaking shoes’ by Dorothy Ko, a notable sinologist, with their designs, texture, decoration and other characteristics confining foot-bound women's body experiences, dreams and hopes.