Free Interpretation of a Shoe: What Does Chinese Cinderella Hide? Essay Sample

Reviewing the Artwork. First Impression. Personal Interpretation.

As I was exploring the web site of Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, a particular item piqued my interest, and it was a fine piece of Chinese footwear. Embroidered with silk and beads, the Chinese Shoe is a beautiful little object that amazes the one who looks at with its subtlety. The skill of the master who made the shoe should have been unequaled indeed. It alludes the period of Art Deco with its silk accessories and painted screens. Personally, looking at the shoe, I envision a graceful figure in a kimono, holding an elegant umbrella, and the lines of exquisite oriental poetry.

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Re-Considering the Initial Interpretation

After I had picked the object of the analysis, I started doing some research and here is what I found. The Chinese Shoe is the work of unknown artist, possibly created in the late nineteenth century (circa 1875-1900). The piece of footwear was given by Miss Marion Ady as a gift and it was later transported from China. The size of the shoe is quite small, it is 14 cm lengthwise and 4.5 cm across. In this respect, there is a very simple explanation of the size of the shoe: it is a piece of footwear made for the bound feet. As Barrett puts it, the shoe is : “ ... strange, exotic, exciting, incompatible, incongruous, inconsistent, distasteful, obnoxious, repellent, and [/or] repugnant”. Certainly, after I have done some more substantial research, after reading historical and biographical information about the work, I began to feel differently about it. At this point, it is important to explore the artistic, historical and social context of the Chinese Shoe.

Historical, Cultural, and Artistic Qualities of the Chinese Shoe

The shoe the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art exhibits is a “black silk satin with embroidery, brocade ribbon, sequins and gold paper strips, and white cotton over wooden heel” (“Embroidered Lady’s Shoe …”). The item is a refined combination of colors and materials. If one only does not try to understand why and what for the feet of Chinese girls were bandaged to take took ‘lotus’ shape, the Chinese Shoe can certainly be seen as a very appealing work of art.

Specific types of Chinese shoes in the old days were made of lungs, cloth, or woven of hemp or straw. As a rule, Chinese footwear was embellished. Thick soles were made of several layers of sized paper or fabric stitched longitudinal rows of stitches. Average leather or fabric boots existed in different periods of time, but their soft contours resembled stockings. Ceremonial shoes people decorated with slips. In rainy weather, if one had to walk through mud, he/she used wooden (similar to the Japanese geta) sandals topless, staying on one’s feet using a cloth or braided plaits. During the reign of the Manchus, the tight boots on a thick white sole, beveled front, completed the official form. The most solemn of them people decorated with hanging strands of jade beads, cords, and ribbons, sometimes to the ground.

Quite apart in this model range are tiny ‘lotus’ shoes – shoes of triangular shape, slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. Such shoes were made more luxurious and beautiful than usual, decorated with various patterns and colors. Although it is problematic to imagine the Westerners, ‘lotus leg’ was not only the pride of women but also, quite naturally, a subject of the highest aesthetic and sexual lust of Chinese men, small feet were sexually alluring.

The tradition of binding women’s feet is the weirdest aspect of Chinese footwear for sure. The tradition has gradually spread across China and small bandaged legs turned into one of the most important criteria of feminine beauty.  For almost two thousand years in China, small female legs were taken as a sign of nobility and beauty. Unknown Chinese master, who has made these shoes, was unlikely to think that it can serve as a slipper or oppression of women, in general, affect some negatively. After an appeal to historical sources, it is possible to assume that the creator of this artwork thought that this shoe could only improve the status of women. The vision of the subject at the time of manufacture, and over the centuries has changed dramatically: we fill it with new meanings, in aggregate historical experience and progress in the public consciousness.

Ladies, whose legs were deformed by means of bandaging, were severely restricted in their movements, if any, could not walk without proper footwear. An even greater shock is the fact that, although attempts to stop this terrible custom made repeatedly and the final official ban was imposed in 1912, the tradition remained in China until the mid-twentieth century and remained voluntary.

How painful this process was given, we can indicate due to the experience of the British missionary Gladis Aylward. In the 30s of the last century, she had a chance to act as a ‘foot inspector’, directed by the Chinese government to the countryside to enforce the new law against footbinding. According to Gladis Aylward, people did not welcome innovations, and foot inspector had even confronted with cases of violence. Morphological freedom determines the individual’s right to maintain the same or change one’s body as he sees it. The centuries-old Chinese tradition shows that sometimes this independence in pursuit of, in general, a good cause, takes very wild forms.

In different countries, body modification was used to emphasize the differences between people, designated status, rank or other position in society. Foot binding is performed in traditional China several functions, labeling high social status of women (the owner of the lotus feet was not physically able to work in the field and to do hard work in general); her wedding attractiveness (“bigfoot” considered almost ugly); and even national identity: the Manchus, unlike the Chinese, are not bandaging legs.

The history of the Chinese style influencing the European fashion makes one recall Miranda Priestly’s monolog about the “lumpy blue sweater” It descended from Oscar de la Renta collection of cerulean gowns: objects, accessories, techniques penetrate from one world to another, acquiring new meanings, something complicated, and in some ways becoming easier. Fusion of two cultures, Chinese and European, and the appearance of the style Chinoiserie (oriental branch of Rococo style) dates back to the XVIII century: delicate Chinese utensils used in the table layout and the interiors were richly decorated Chinese vases, tapestries, screens, furniture. Chinese themes are widely used in painting; the new style has had an impact on the architecture: with the popularization of tea in the palace and park ensemble began to appear Chinese pavilions, the so-called teahouses.

Comparing How Personal Interpretation

First and foremost, I cannot help but emphasize the following point. It is striking how such a seemingly utilitarian object as a piece of footwear can correlate with several subtexts. “When looking at old art, the challenge seems larger than with art made by artists of one’s own time and place”. My initial assumption was that these shoes were worn by some pretty dressed lady. Admittedly, I was wrong. That kind footwear was designed for women who have deformed their legs with cruel bandaging.

After reading several works on the history of fashion, history of shoes, and Chinese tradition of foot-binding and its meaning, my opinion of the work has changed. Romantic images of powdered Chinese women do not look so attractive to me after that. A tiny shoe, which would more suit a doll than a living woman, is not just a masterpiece of art, craftsmanship, and embroidery, but it is also a social and national identification tool as well as a relic of the centuries-old system of voluntary subordination. Now, after an in-depth study of the issue, my idea of a woman for whom the shoe was made, has corrected. The owner of the shoes was a lady of high birth, definitely, Chinese nationality (not Manchu), who got the desired status in the marriage market.

As for the purely artistic attribution, it remains unchanged. This embroidered satin shoe is an exquisite piece of art, which will be admired for a long time. The initial assumption is that the line, coloring, and ornament used in the decoration of the shoe, are relevant to the style of Art Deco, seems correct. The Chinese influence on European fashion and design was quite wide, and Chinese silk women shoes are connected with European Chinoiserie style, as well as more recent styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Final Judgments

My initial interpretation, as it turned out, was quite sketchy. Reading more literature has changed my impression of the chosen object and opened its new values. As quite intimate, but flaunts part of female attire, shoes in old China were the true measure of status, wealth and personal taste of their owners. Today, the custom of foot binding seems a mere relic, a memorial of discriminating against women. At the same time, these ‘lotus shoes’ are not shoes, but a valuable collectible. It can be interpreted variously: as a self-identification tool; a witness of time and social changes; a historical exhibit, which is pointed an ancient tradition; and as a fashion accessory (which does the conventional way first from the Chinese dancer wardrobe to the boudoir of the French aristocrat and from there – into the world of current fashion).


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