Shoes outside a house in Gejia village, Guizhou province, China. Picture: Alamy
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Shoes on or off inside? The Chinese haven’t always been in agreement, especially when there are chairs involved

Removing one’s footwear upon entering a house is often perceived as a pan-Asian custom. But it wasn’t always the case for the imperial Chinese

Perusing photographs of Lunar New Year conviviality on social media a few weeks ago, I saw that most people weren’t wearing shoes indoors. I do think one’s Sunday best doesn’t photograph well with stockinged or bare feet, and that without the appropriate footwear, even the fanciest dresses look wretched.

As a Southeast Asian, I simply must remove my shoes before I enter the house. Outdoor footwear – as a repository of disgusting things picked up from soil surfaces, pavements and public lavatories – has no place in the home. It’s often assumed the Chinese have always done the same, but for about 1,000 years before the 20th century, most stepped into their homes without removing or changing their shoes.

Historical records show that early on, the Chinese did remove their shoes, because they sat on the floor, just as one does in traditional Japanese or Korean houses today. Books on etiquette from the Zhou period (1046–256BC) prescribed that before an audience with the lord, footwear had to be removed. Shoes would be discreetly put back on later, out of sight.

Sometimes, not removing socks was also a faux pas. There was a lord who was furious that one of his men left his socks on during a banquet and threatened to cut his feet off, even after the latter explained he had a diseased foot.

The people of the Qin and Han periods (221BC – AD220) continued the custom of sitting on floors indoors with unshod feet, evidenced by effigies and wall murals unearthed at archaeological sites from that period. To bear one’s sword and wear one’s shoes in the presence of the emperor was a great honour bestowed only to a few.

There are also records of grandees rushing out from the inner quarters of their houses barefoot or holding their shoes to meet their guests, impressing upon their visitors their supposed humility. This exhilarated impatience was also present in the lyrics of a Han period song: “The newlywed wife recognises the sound of the horse, and greets he who arrives with her shoes in her hand.”

The fall of the Han empire, in AD220, was followed by three-and-a-half centuries of internal instability, foreign invasions, and the occupation of northern China by peoples from central and northern Asia, who introduced a piece of furniture that was to bring about a seismic shift in Chinese home life: the chair. Chinese no longer sat on the floor, which meant higher tables and other furniture. The elevation from floor-level living also meant that removing shoes indoors was no longer absolutely necessary. People soon stopped taking them off altogether, except when they climbed into their raised beds.

In 19th century China, chairs still dictated that shoes could be worn indoors. Picture: Alamy

A story from the Tang dynasty (618–907) recounts how visitors from the distinguished but modest Fang family were laughed at by maids of the grand Wei family for removing their shoes before they entered a bedchamber in the Wei residence. Even by then, removing shoes indoors was considered something “old-fashioned” people might do. Wearing shoes in the house would remain the norm in the subsequent dynasties and well into the modern era.

It isn’t clear when it was exactly in the 20th century that the Chinese started to remove their shoes at home after a 1,000-year hiatus. Even today, people in many parts of China don’t take off their shoes at home.

For the many who do, perhaps you could crop your bare feet out of the picture the next time you post photographs of yourself in glamorous togs. A spiffy suit or pretty dress looks incomplete without shoes. But if you want to show yourself relaxing at home in comfortable clothes and bare feet, knock yourselves out.