Fill My Shoes…and My Heart

Jie Li


During China’s Cultural Revolution, Jie Li’s educated parents were sent to a “red star” commune to plow the soil, sow seeds, fetch water, and eventually to teach. When her father helps save a boy’s life, the child’s grateful family gives gifts of beautifully sewn insoles. When she moves to Canada, Jie Li brings her last pair of embroidered insoles with her.


When did I receive my first pair of shoe insoles? I have worn them for as long as I can remember. They are cross-stitched, hand-sewn and made specially to fit my feet.  More importantly, they remind me of my parents and my Chinese past.  

My parents met when they were sent down to a ‘red star’ commune in Liangping county in Southwest China in 1968.  This was during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1976, Chairman Mao sent the “intellectual” youth to work in the countryside to get “educated.”  For the first few years, they learned how to plough the soil, sow seeds, harvest crops, fetch well water, cut firewood and feed livestock.  Later, they were assigned to teach Chinese and mathematics part-time in the village’s elementary school.  My parents taught next to each other in the same building. Their classrooms were divided by only a thin, bamboo-mud fence. 

One winter day, a student, defying classroom rules, brought his huilong, a cumbersome coal-burning heater, to the playground.  My mom spotted him and was worried it might burn one of the children while they were playing.  She asked him to part with it, but he refused.  My dad overheard the conversation and persuaded the child to give up his huilong. Gradually, my dad won my mom’s trust.

He endeared himself to the rest of the town when Guo’er, one of his students, contracted meningitis and fell into a coma.  Not one of the “barefoot doctors”, who received minimal medical training in the countryside, could do anything for him. My father volunteered to carry him on his back for several kilometres to a regional hospital where he could be treated with the proper medicine. Guo’er recovered, and my father became a hero to the boy’s family and the entire village. 

My mom chose my dad despite the opposition from her family, as my grandma didn’t want her daughter to marry someone from a declassed ‘landlord’ family.  In 1977, they got permission to return to Wanxian city. In early 1979, they received approval to marry, and at the end of that year, I was born.

Since then, as a gesture of appreciation and respect, Guo’er’s family and friends would come to visit us during the time of the Spring Festival. They always brought fresh pork, specialty oranges and three new pairs of shoe insoles: one for my mom, one for my dad and one for me. Sewn by the dexterous hands of those villagers, these insoles were blessings, full of symbolic meanings, from longevity to good luck. A flower, a bird or a vivid embroidery made each insole unique.  

Mom would dress me in a red corduroy outfit.  I would always place a pair of freshly-washed shoe insoles inside my leather shoes and try them out on the Spring Festival Eve.  When my feet touched the cross-structured insoles, they got massaged and protected. Although Guo’er’s family didn’t see me from year to year, they somehow managed to visualize my growth.  And the insoles always fit my new size!

I brought my most recent insoles to Canada just as a keepsake, but I have found a surprising new use for them. I wear size five and a half, but it is hard to find shoes small enough for me here. The insoles give me a boost of confidence and help me fill my Canadian shoes.

JIE LI was born and raised in China. She landed in Toronto in late 2006. She works as a Senior Records and Information Analyst for the City of Toronto.

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