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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Yuyang Hu

Women Caught Between Eras: Two Periods, Two Pains, Two Types of Footwear

Foot-binding was a traditional practice in ancient China where the feet of Han Chinese women, between the ages of 4 and 8, were bound by foot-binding cloth tightly around the four smaller toes, except for the big toe, bending them towards the sole.This practice continued until the foot structure was fixed and no longer changed, resulting in the characteristic small and pointed shape known as bound feet. By the end of the nineteenth century, the foot-binding culture had gradually declined amidst the clash of Chinese and Western civilisations and the transition between old and new cultures, losing its original cultural respectability and legitimacy, and foot-binding women began to unbind their feet. However, the damage caused by foot binding makes it difficult for the feet to fully recover, resulting in a state between the natural feet and the bound feet, known as the unbound feet.

Cultural and bodily transformations have spurred the creation of a new type of footwear, namely unbound-feet shoes. Bound-feet shoes served the purpose of tightly binding and maintaining the shape of bound feet, while unbound-feet shoes provided more space for the unbound-feet to stretch their toes, forefoot, and arch. Bound-feet shoes had a pointed front and wider back, with an open mouth and a significantly small overall size, featuring a pointed toe. On the other hand, unbound-feet shoes had an increased width in the forefoot area, resulting in nearly equal width throughout the shoe, and a rounded toe. These changes have expanded the space within the shoe, accommodating the stretching of the feet. Furthermore, the rounded toe also symbolizes cultural progress for women. ‘once a woman unbound her feet, she should no longer wear pointed shoes but instead switch to round-toe shoes, signaling her ‘progressive status to others.’

Foot-binding shoes were considered intimate items for women. They were handcrafted by bound-feet women and were seen as symbols of sexuality and displays of Confucian virtues of female beauty. However, after foot releasing, many urban women no longer made their own shoes, leading to the emergence of numerous women's shoe shops that began selling and customizing unbound-feet shoes. The pair of unbound-feet shoes depicted in the photo is exquisitely crafted with beautiful embroidery, made by skilled artisans at a women's shoe shop.

The change in how these women obtained footwear signifies that in the context of the new culture, the privateness of Han Chinese women’s footwear has been broken, which also implies the breach of privateness regarding women’s feet. It means that women’s feet are gradually returning to their inherent position within the female body, no longer regarded as family property, marital capital, or symbols of sexuality. The significance attributed to women’s feet within Confucian culture and the male gaze is diminishing, and they are increasingly seen as just a part of body.

Image: A pair of Unbound-feet shoes, Yan Ling bo‘s private collection.

A ceramic pillow from Ci-Zhou kiln, c. 1279-1368 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Craftsman and Literati:A ceramic pillow from CI-Zhou kiln

The essay explores making ceramic pillows at the CI-Zhou kiln by combining archaeological data and knowledge of porcelain production. In this exploration, it was discovered that the clay, mud, clay bars, make-up clay, pigments, glazes, fuel, and even the bricks used to build the kiln were all produced locally in Ci-zhou. The kiln craftsmen took advantage of the plasticity and ease of working with the clay to produce the bricks. They took advantage of the Yao-Zhou kiln"s technique of make-up clay to compensate for the high iron content of the clay, which produced a dark, rough surface. They also took advantage of the darkening of the color of iron when heated to create a distinctive decorative style of brown color on a white background, using mottled stones containing iron for painting. Through this exploration, the ceramic pillows show how well the kiln"s craftsmen used local natural resources, how well they grasped the properties of the materials, and how creative they were in their production techniques.

The essay combines ceramic pillows with the historical and cultural context of the Yuan dynasty, using the decoration of the pillow"s surface as a starting point to discover the interaction between the literati, folk art, and the porcelain pillow-making workshops of the Yuan dynasty. It is argued that the literati provided the reference for the decoration of porcelain pillows during the Yuan dynasty through the creation of Yuanqu and Yuanzaju.

The essay also examines the possible ways in which the literati were involved in the production of ceramic pillows at Ci-Zhou kilns, taking into account the characteristics of the pillow-making process and comparing several pillows produced at the kilns. The article overturns the judgment of Zhao Xuefeng, the curator of the Ci-Zhou Kiln Museum, as to the identity of a potential participant in the production of the V&A pillow C.1-1930, the "彰滨逸人." It is suggested that the Yuan literati may have been employed by or collaborated with the ceramic pillow workshop as artists and were involved in the production of the pillows through the provision of manuscripts.

It is also suggested that there are two possible identities of the potential participants in producing the V&A porcelain pillows C.1-1930.One is that "彰滨逸人" was reclusive literati who collaborated with the "王氏寿明" ceramic pillow workshop by providing manuscripts rather than painting the pillows himself. One is that the "彰滨逸人" was a fictional character created by the ceramic pillow workshop to promote its pillows.

Image: A ceramic pillow from Ci-Zhou kiln, c. 1279-1368 (Victoria and Albert Museum)