Ancient Culture Woven Into Insoles

In the valley along the Yellow River, known as the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, tradition is rooted in down-to-earth items such as insoles.

To women living in the area, insoles are far more than something to stick in their shoes.

On pieces of cotton cloth, many local women stitched in designs showing their respect for life and universe.

With their deft fingers, local women can change pieces of cloth saved from their daily sewing work into exquisite embroidered insoles.

The insoles embroidered by these women are not simply for art's sake. Every stitch reveals the feelings of the maker: Teenage girls express their love for their boyfriends; middle-aged women express their feelings for their husbands; and old women show their care for their children and grandchildren.

Embroidering insoles is an established family activity. Traditionally, every family was likened to a lush tree in which men were the strong trunk. The men were duty-bound to support all family members. Sometimes this was not easy due to harsh living conditions forcing men to leave their home to make a living. Wherever they went, it was their feet that helped them trudge across mountains and rivers. Women began to search for ways to help their husbands and fathers.

However, deeply influenced by the traditional Chinese culture, women were too reserved to openly express their real sentiments.

Yet they have never been shy to wear their feelings on the embroidered insoles.

On the embroidered insoles, they patterned out various blessings for husbands, sons, relatives and friends.

They believed that these insoles would not only soothe men's exhausted feet, but also remind men of the families backing them up.

Women also believe that men would be safe and sound if they wore shoes containing embroidered insoles.

There are two kinds of designs frequently found on embroidered insoles. One is composed of specific patterns and the other is composed of abstract symbols.

Insoles with specific patterns often can be found in the Xinzhou and Luliang prefectures in Shanxi Province. Flowers, birds, animals and figures are all used as the creative sources of the vivid patterns.

Liu Jinchan, for example, a 56-year-old woman from Xigou Village, Pianguan County of Shanxi Province, designed a pair of insoles named "The Plough." She said the pattern was handed down from her elders.

The plough on the insoles reflects the embroider's wish for a newly-wed couple to have a "happy marriage sent by the God." In other cases, the plough pattern can be interpreted as the embroider's expectation for the early return of relatives and friends far away from home.

Styled Chinese characters could also be found on embroidered insoles, such as nian for missing or xi for happiness. By reading the insoles, people might come to understand the embroider's mind.

Zhang Yanli, a young girl living in Qingliang Village, Linxian County of Shanxi Province, has made a pair of insoles for her boyfriend with the Chinese characters, which means "see you - double happiness." "I might not say the exact words to him," said a timid Zhang. "But he should be able to understand what I'm suggesting."

The young man didn't get it wrong. "I will work hard in the city and head back home soon with enough money for my girl," said her boyfriend, who was going to work as a migrant worker in a nearby city. "I know she is expecting a happy marriage."

The abstract symbols on the insoles also contain special meanings.

Symbols derived from Buddhism signify the local people's understanding of the universe. "You can tell it's yin and yang and that heaven and earth stay in harmony," said Tian Junmei, 27, from Zhongjiagou Village. She learned her embroidery skills from her mother at a very young age. "I like to add variations to these patterns on my embroidered insoles," she said. "But I know I have to keep with the principle, for every pattern handed down has its own special meaning that I cannot change too much."

Three main methods of embroidering insoles were recorded in the area.

The first one, rarely seen nowadays, is named "applique embroidery." This method is connected with traditional paper-cutting. Women make a design in a paper cut and then applique the design on the surface of the insole. They then use a plain stitch to cover the design.

The second method is named "embroidery with plain stitch," which is easier to learn because paper cutting is not required. The design is drawn directly on the insole with a charcoal pencil. It is then embroidered using a plain stitch. Different beautiful designs have been passed down for generations. Women who are proficient in this method mostly live in Shanxi Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Some of them can even embroider the design without drawing the outline on the insole.

The last method used for embroidery of abstract symbols is "cross stitch."

Typical designs include a plus sign symbolizing the unification between heaven and earth. With this method, the surfaces of the insoles are divided into checks equal in size by crossing the warp and weft. The edge along these checks is embroidered.

In the hearts of these women, they deeply believe that embroidered insoles can bring love and blessings to the wearer.

Though there are cheaper alternatives nowadays, many people still prefer embroidered insoles because they are linked to their birthplace, where traditional culture has been woven into the fabric of everyday life.

(China Daily 06/20/2001)

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