1995.001.001 Silk embroidered children's shoes in red with leather soles. Piping along opening. Chinese painted on bottom heel of right shoe in black. Creature's face embroidered at toes. Courtesy of Lily Hou, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection. 红色真丝刺绣童鞋,皮革鞋底。沿开口配管。黑色右鞋后跟处绘有中国字。脚趾上绣着怪物的脸。Lily Hou捐赠,美国华人博物馆 (MOCA) 馆藏。

Embroidery has long been a common folk art in China, and children’s clothing were often decorated with auspicious symbolic designs meant to invoke good fortune; ward off evil; and convey mothers’ wishes and moral teachings to children. Ethnographic research into symbolism in Chinese folk arts conducted by Christi Lan Lin and Phylis Lan Lin shed particular light on the meanings of the decorative motifs lovingly stitched onto the traditional Chinese children’s hat and shoes shown here. On this mandarin cap topped with a bright fuchsia pom, the embroidered lotus signified purity and perfection, the peach longevity and immortality, and the wan (卍 a Buddhist sign often confused for a swastika) a reinforcement of the mother’s wish for her child’s longevity. The creature on this tiny pair of red silk slippers is a bit ambiguous but could be a dragon or fish. Dragons in Chinese culture were emblematic of imperial authority and male vigor, and fishes, in Chinese a homonym for yu (余), represented abundance. These embroidering practices developed when rates of childhood mortality were high and children were perceived to require an extra layer of supernatural protection but continue to adorn children’s traditional special occasion attire to this day.