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The Sole of China

Since the Qing Dynasty, cotton shoes have been the footwear of choice.


BEIJING — Once the trademark of China's revolution, the blue button-up Mao suits are all but gone in Beijing. The matching caps are also scarce. But one piece of the old communist uniform endures: the shoes.

Chinese still love their bu xie (pronounced boo-shyeh)--black cloth slip-ons with flimsy plastic or cloth soles that look more like bedroom slippers than proper shoes.

Although Italian-style leather pumps, Nike sneakers and their knockoffs have taken over a huge chunk of the footwear market since China started going capitalist two decades ago, the traditional cloth shoes have refused to be squeezed out.

Twentysomethings with mobile phones sport them in trendy shopping districts. Retirees lounge around in them, playing cards under shade trees near Tiananmen Square. Even construction workers lug around heavy steel beams and pour concrete in the cloth shoes, which don't come in a steel-toe variety.

For feet spoiled by cushioned running shoes or the support of firm leather uppers, spending the day in the slippers on Beijing's unforgiving concrete and tile sidewalks would be torture. The shoes provide no arch support or cushioning, though Chinese sometimes add stitched cotton insoles, which help a little.

But lifelong cloth-shoe wearers like 70-year-old Gu Yuqing cringe when they think of binding their feet in lace-ups or stuffing them in tight, stiff leather shoes.

"They're nice and cool in the summer and they don't pinch my feet," said Gu, a thin man with leathery tanned skin and a gray crewcut, as he shuffled into the subway entrance near Tiananmen Square. "In the winter, I wear thicker ones with fleece inside."

Part of the appeal of bu xie is their price--about $1. That's important for the Chinese, whose average annual disposable income is about $770 in the cities and less than half that in the countryside.

Although Mao suits and caps can mark someone as a bumpkin or a rigid loyalist to the communist policies that created economic and social chaos, cotton shoes have evaded stereotypes. That's largely because the shoes predated the revolution and are considered a symbol of Chinese, not communist, culture.

"At least since the Qing Dynasty, we've been wearing cotton shoes. Just in the past 20 years or so, we started wearing leather shoes," said Wang Feng, a 25-year-old teacher from eastern Jiangsu province who wore a pair of white-soled bu xie as he toured Beijing on vacation.

One of China's most famous cotton shoe makers isn't afraid to point out the footwear's ties to the communist revolution.

In the entrance of Beijing's Neiliansheng Shoe Store, an exhibit of black-and-white photos shows the "Dream Team" of deceased Chinese revolutionary leaders wearing the company's shoes: There's Mao Tse-tung sitting on a pile of soil, looking wistfully at the Yellow River. Revered Premier Chou En-lai, in Mao suit and cap, chats with a villager. Deng Xiaoping, architect of the reforms, meets North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, who wears leather shoes.

Conspicuously absent from the shoe shrine is President Jiang Zemin. But Cheng Laixiang, Neiliansheng's general manager, said Jiang is a good customer.

"He usually wears Western-style shoes in public, but he changes into his cotton shoes once he goes home," said Cheng. He said former President George Bush bought a pair of Neiliansheng shoes when he ran the U.S. government liaison office in Beijing in the mid-1970s.

Neiliansheng's shoes, first made in 1853, cost about $10--nearly 10 times more than the popular Flying Horse brand sold throughout Beijing.

Cheng said he believes Chinese will always wear cloth shoes, but he acknowledged the market is shrinking. He declined to give specific sales figures, but said his factory makes fewer than the 100,000 pairs a year it produced 30 years ago.

The shoemaker said Neiliansheng needs to do a better job searching out new markets.

"We're thinking about targeting the Chinatowns in the United States and Europe. There are a lot of people who stock up on the shoes when they return and visit China."

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