Three years. That’s how long it took He Kaiying to perfect the craft of making a pair of Neiliansheng shoes by hand. It’s hardly surprising, given the process involves more than 100 steps.
The eponymous shoe brand, founded in 1853 by a cobbler named Zhao Ting during the Qing Dynasty, is one of China’s oldest handmade shoe companies. Its boots were once worn by Imperial officials. More recently, renowned political figures such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, as well as contemporary celebrities such as Jackie Chan, have all owned a pair of Neiliansheng shoes. Translated, the meaning of ‘Neiliansheng’ portends that the shoe’s owner will rise through the ranks of the Imperial court. Who doesn’t need a little bit of luck to get past the gates of the Forbidden City?
Shoemaker He, 59, is one of Neiliansheng’s longest-serving employees, a second-generation shoemaker who inherited the trade from his father 35 years ago. His father also worked for Neiliansheng.
‘I trained for three years with my teacher,’ says He, while weaving the timeless shoes at the flagship Dashilar shop. ‘Each student had one teacher. Now, I’m the teacher, teaching several apprentices.’ To this day, Neiliansheng holds on to its strict traditions. One pair of custom shoes takes almost a week to make.
The shop’s ‘1,000 layer’ sole, or qiancengdi
(千层底), is not actually made of 1,000 layers, but there’s still a substantial amount, 35 layers for men’s shoes and 31 for women, all handmade with white cotton.
‘Many people ask me how it can be that without glue the sole won’t come loose, even after many years… [it’s] because of the strict techniques and sewing,’ says He.
Using linen thread, a thin needle and cotton layered soles, he shows us two different stitching patterns — a linear dotted stitch that requires 2,100 stitches and a cross stitch, requiring 4,200. Because of the intricate number of stitches, the soles are durably sewn together to make it flexible and light.
‘The thick soles were designed for officials’ boots as a kind of uniform shoe to make them walk in a certain manner. Wearing such a thick-sole shoe, [it] was impossible to bend over while walking. It’s the same design concept for drama boots nowadays,’ says He, promenading around the room in a slow, dramatic stride to show how Imperial officials strolled around the courts.
Even the most simply designed shoes come with an Imperial price tag: custom orders start at 1,400RMB. Shoes with less detail, however, cost around 300RMB.
After 35 years, He can’t imagine doing anything else: ‘You may not believe it, but I even make shoes in my dreams’.Neiliansheng 34 Dashilar Jie, Qianmen, Xicheng district (63014863). Open 9am-9pm daily. 东城区 前门大栅栏34号