By: Frank Teichert, Curator – DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History




This is the second instalment on shoes from the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s collection. Footwear has always been a reflection of culture, fashion, and tradition. In the vast tapestry of global shoe styles, few are as distinct and captivating as the Chinese Bow Shoes, known as Jinliancuo in Mandarin. These delicate and beautifully crafted shoes have a rich history dating back over a thousand years, and they continue to be an integral part of Chinese heritage and fashion. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of Chinese Bow Shoes, exploring their origins, cultural significance, design intricacies, and enduring appeal.


Chinese Bow Shoes from DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s collection.


Historical Origins


The origin of Chinese Bow Shoes can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), a period characterized by remarkable advancements in art, culture, and technology. During this time, a distinctive style of footwear emerged, which incorporated the iconic bow design. The shoes gained popularity among women of the Song Dynasty court and gradually became a symbol of elegance and refinement.


One of the key features that set Chinese Bow Shoes apart is the delicate bow-shaped decoration on the vamp. This bow, often made of silk or other fine materials, was not only aesthetically pleasing but also a symbol of femininity and grace. It was during the Song Dynasty that the term Jinliancuo, meaning “golden lotus shoes,” was coined, referring to the bound feet of women wearing these exquisite shoes.


Different ancient adult bow shoes.


Cultural Significance


Chinese Bow Shoes are deeply intertwined with Chinese culture and tradition. They are closely associated with the practice of foot binding, which was a widespread custom in ancient China. Foot binding involved tightly wrapping the feet of young girls to achieve the desired “lotus” shape, which was considered the epitome of beauty and femininity. Chinese Bow Shoes were designed to accommodate these bound feet, with a curved sole that mimicked the shape of the bound foot.


Foot binding left feet disfigured.


While foot binding is no longer practiced in modern China, Chinese Bow Shoes remain an enduring symbol of the country’s cultural heritage. They serve as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices women made in the pursuit of beauty during centuries past. Today, these shoes are worn primarily for cultural events, traditional performances, and as collectible items.


Design Intricacies


The design of Chinese Bow Shoes is a testament to the craftsmanship and attention to detail that has been passed down through generations of artisans. These shoes are typically made from high-quality silk or brocade fabric, which is chosen for its rich colours and intricate patterns. The bow on the vamp is often the focal point, with its shape and size varying according to the wearer’s social status.


Bow shoes with intricate design.


The soles of Chinese Bow Shoes are another distinctive feature. They are curved upwards at the front, creating a slight elevation. This design, intended to mimic the shape of bound feet, makes walking in these shoes a unique experience, requiring a delicate and graceful gait. The soles are often made from layers of cotton, providing comfort despite the seemingly impractical shape.


Evolution and Contemporary Relevance


As China modernized and Western fashion influences began to dominate, the practice of foot binding gradually faded away. Chinese Bow Shoes, however, did not disappear with it. Instead, they evolved to meet the changing times. Today, these shoes are no longer associated with foot binding but are cherished as symbols of cultural heritage and beauty.


In contemporary China, Chinese Bow Shoes have found a place in the world of fashion and art. Designers and artists draw inspiration from these shoes, incorporating their elements into modern clothing and accessories. The vibrant colours and intricate patterns of Chinese Bow Shoes continue to captivate audiences around the globe, making appearances in international fashion shows and exhibitions.


Modern Chinese Bow Shoes.


The Global Appeal


Beyond their cultural significance in China, Chinese Bow Shoes have garnered a global following. Collectors and enthusiasts from different corners of the world appreciate the craftsmanship and history behind these shoes. They have become sought-after items for those who wish to own a piece of Chinese heritage.


Chinese Bow Shoes have also found their way into various forms of entertainment. From movies set in ancient China to traditional dance performances, these shoes are a symbol of authenticity and attention to detail. They contribute to the visual and cultural richness of the art forms in which they are featured.




In the world of fashion and culture, Chinese Bow Shoes occupy a unique and cherished place. They are not merely footwear; they are a bridge to China’s rich history, a testament to the enduring allure of tradition, and an exquisite representation of craftsmanship. From their origins in the Song Dynasty to their contemporary relevance, Chinese Bow Shoes continue to captivate the imagination and admiration of people worldwide.


While the practice of foot binding may be a thing of the past, the legacy of Chinese Bow Shoes lives on. These shoes serve as a reminder of the profound cultural and historical tapestry that is China. They are a testament to the resilience of tradition in the face of modernity and a symbol of beauty that transcends time. Chinese Bow Shoes are a living art form, an embodiment of elegance, and a source of inspiration for generations to come.


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