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Object of the Month #12: Vive la Différence?

Object of the Month #12
Vive la Différence?
Manchu Woman’s Platform Shoe (2013.01.137)
December 2015

Can you imagine walking in shoes like this? You would suddenly be 11 cm (over 4”) taller, balanced rather precariously on shoes with a significantly smaller footprint than that of your actual foot. I’m sure I would be on the ground with a twisted ankle in seconds, but my feet would be beautiful.

This is a 19th century woman’s platform shoe from China, made for a Manchurian woman. While many people have heard of lotus shoes, worn by Chinese women with bound feet, you probably haven’t seen a shoe quite like this one.[1]

The shoe was found in the archives by itself, without a mate.[2] The upper is light blue silk satin, with embroidered flowers and leaves. The topline is defined by a black band, edged with decorative blue and white stitching, and ribbon trim with minuscule fringe. Two lines of black piping over the toe are stiffer than the topline band, and may be waxed. The insole, sock lining, and platform covering are made of off-white cotton or hemp. The upper and platform are separated by a band of green piping. The bottom of the sole is quilted, presumably to provide a little traction, although the shoe shows minimal signs of wear. A vertical seam runs down one side of the platform, plausibly indicating the instep side, which would make this a shoe for the left foot. The inside of the platform is probably made of wood.

Although made for a very small foot (no larger than a size 4 U.S. woman’s shoe), it is still twice as big as the “golden lotus,” the name for an idealized three- to four-inch long bound foot. Even though the Manchu platform stands in marked contrast to lotus shoes, it developed in part as a direct response to them.

But first we need to step back and take a quick look at dynastic upheaval in 17th century China before we can talk more about this 19th century shoe. In 1644 the Qing Dynasty succeeded the Ming Dynasty bringing with it a change in the ethnicity of the ruling power from Han to Manchu. The Manchu insisted on keeping a formal separation from the Han, affecting many aspects of life and all social classes from the emperor on down. Manchurians were forbidden from marrying Han or having political associations with them. They observed different traditions in dress than did the Han. This dress code also prohibited Manchurian women from binding their feet.[3]

Bound feet were considered beautiful and dainty, and created a desirable gait. Because of their sheer impracticality, they also implied luxury and a life removed from physical labor. A Manchurian woman who wanted to achieve the same qualities had to work around the prohibition. The Manchu platform shoe, a style relatively popular in the 19th century, leaves footprints much smaller than the foot that wears it. When worn under a long dress or robe that hides most of the shoe, it gives the illusion of a much smaller foot, such as one that has been bound. The impracticality of the height of the platform would also affect the gait. Both types of shoe shared a common aesthetic, favoring similar iconography and materials on the uppers.

And yet, platform shoes differ from lotus shoes in not insignificant ways. The most obvious difference is that the Manchu platform shoe did not require permanently hobbled feet. The shoes give the illusion of greater height. Even obscured behind a long hem, they look distinctly different from lotus shoes, and the platforms themselves were often undecorated or decorated in a unique style.

One of the last rulers of the Qing Dynasty was a woman, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Descended from a prominent Manchu family, her own feet were never bound.[4] Technically a regent ruling for her son and then her nephew, the Tongxi and Guangxu Emperors respectively, she was the power behind the throne.[5] There are several photographs of the empress dowager wearing elaborate versions of this very type of platform shoe.

During her rule Cixi repealed several Han-Manchu restrictions. She lifted the ban against intermarriage between the two groups, and sought to forbid foot binding for Han women as well.[6] Interestingly, this backfired and actually increased the popularity of foot binding among the Han before the practice finally died out in the early 20th century[7], showing that at that time the Manchu were not alone in trying to preserve ethnic identity through clothing.

While lotus shoes and Manchu platforms may look like just an exotic “other” to someone unfamiliar with the styles and traditions behind them, at one time both types conferred distinct visual definitions of ethnic identity upon the wearer. Even though the Manchu platform did not supplant foot binding, towards the end of the Qing Dynasty it was a symbol of the ultimate power in China as exemplified by the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Foot binding was introduced to China more than ten centuries ago, and didn’t fully disappear until the 20th century. A painful process started in childhood, the toes and arch of the foot were broken, and the feet were bound tightly in order to attain the desired shape and size. We have a few lotus shoes in the NMH Archives. Send me an email at sreid if you’re interested in seeing them.

[2] Alert readers may be reminded of an Object of the Month post from last year, a single Afghani boot. This is no coincidence. Both shoe and boot were found in the same box, and are likely from the same still-unidentified donor.

[3] Seagrave, S., & Seagrave, P. (1992). Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p 30.

[4] Chang, J. (2013). Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 3.

[5] Literally. While the young emperor sat on a throne in the council chamber, she sat behind a curtain behind the throne. Ibid., p. 56.

[6] Ibid., pp. 325-6.

[7] Chou, S. (2009). Manchu Horse-Hoof Shoes: Footwear and Cultural Identity. V&A Online Journal, 2.