Liberation Shoes: China’s Revolutionary Footwear

You pay a steep price for being first. You put in the effort and expense of inventing something, only for interlopers to copy your invention, improve it, and net better results on the back of your effort. In the 20th century, China’s People’s Liberation Army has usually been the parvenu who wisely refines others’ innovations on the cheap.

When they did pioneer something zany and new, you could expect two things for certain: it would be ingeniously economical, and it would lean heavily on the PLA’s genius for putting the “light” back in “light infantry.”

But that combination could go either of two ways, “cost-effective and nimble” or “cheap and flimsy.” They mean exactly the same thing, except one is brilliant and the other is merely good enough.

When the PLA invented its awesome chest rig, it was quickly recognized as China’s greatest invention since paper, printing, gunpowder, and compasses and spread to all the armies of the earth. But when the PLA invented the “liberation shoe,” it gave a fifth of humanity foot fungus.

The shoes ran me about $10, because I blew a little extra on the de luxe package, which included shoe laces.

Still, I had to try liberation shoes. Lean Solid Dogs is a laboratory not just of surplus gear but also of the human spirit! We do not shy away from a momentous and outrageously cheap item of Communist Bloc outdoor gear, even at the cost of discomfort and skin disease. (Besides, I’m already afflicted with a wicked foot fungus from my misspent youth in Red China. There’s nothing more they can do to me.)

Liberation shoes are as bound up with the founding of the People’s Republic as Betsy Ross, muskets, and sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. In 1950, China marched off to war in Korea just a year after completing their Communist revolution. As befit a New China, they shod their “volunteer” soldiers in a revolutionary new footwear that symbolized perfectly the difference between the Western way of war and the new Maoist way–cheap, flexible, expendable, and nimble.

The PLA turned its back on over a century of modern military science, wherein quartermasters sought to shod their infantry in a strong pair of boots. High or low, jackboots or lace-ups, leather or ersatz, with socks or foot wraps, puttees or gaiters or nothing–this was as far as they differed. Each infantryman represented just a rifle with feet, and the army meant to protect their investment with something stout.

But the leaders of China’s light infantry were not as concerned with protecting their feet as moving them, as quickly as possible and over terrain so broken that the UN troops would think it impassable.

They were equipped accordingly with New China’s first great military invention: the combat sneaker. Technically the “Type 50” shoes, but no one calls them that. They are known as “liberation shoes.”

“The American and South Korean armies wore … American-style combat boots, which were warm and durable but also cloddishly heavy,” reads a typical Chinese account. “… In contrast, the [Chinese] soldiers had grown up wearing grass or cloth shoes and were unaccustomed to heavy combat boots. … For summer wear, Liberation Shoes proved themselves light and well suited to long-distance marches” and climbing the Korean peninsula’s rocky terrain. In fact, the sneakers worked so well for climbing that the Chinese stuck with the sneakers even in the howling Korean winters!

The PLA was so thrilled with the performance of the liberation sneakers that it kept them in service for six decades. Just as you might expect of a country where “the army and the people were as close as fish and water” and the military enjoyed terrific prestige, the liberation shoe became a standard item for civilian laborers and farmers, appreciated for their affordability, comfort, and nice, grippy rubber sole.

What Rhymes With “Jungle?” (Hint: Think Ringworm)

But apparently some People’s Republics are never happy. (Yes, Vietnam, that side-eye is for you.) China started sending their “socialist younger brothers” in Hanoi tons of gear even before the French were driven out, including liberation shoes. Mao was sending trainloads of aid long before Stalin even condescended to like Ho Chi Minh’s new Facebook profile photo.

The Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, and if the two sides could only have been brought together on the Dr. Phil Show, they might have been able to talk out their toxic relationship. China played the patronizing and controlling philanthropist, and Vietnam was the sullen beneficiary who resented the strings attached but still wanted the gifts. And PLA leaders felt hurt by the favoritism shown by Mao, who was acting like a stingy old woman who neglects her own family only to lavish love on a hissing feral cat.

China annoyed the Soviets and Czechs with their whinging entitlement, only to complain about mooching, ungrateful Albanians and Vietnamese. 

So it must have stung that Vietnam didn’t like China’s remarkable liberation shoes. Sure, they stank. And the more you wore them, the funkier they got. But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Vietnam, especially when your war economy can’t even make its own toothpaste! And OK, the liberation shoes weren’t so durable either. If you worked hard and played hard, the shoes wore in just two months. But who cares? They’re cheap and replaceable. Heck, in the Communist world, “shoddy and expendable” is almost a feature, not a bug!

The problem was that liberation shoes were waterproof…but only kinda waterproof.

For long-distance running or walking, your prime directive is “keep your feet dry.” That means that shoes can choose from two basic strategies: (1) keep water out completely, like a jackboot, or (2) admit water and then expel it, like US jungle boots or French pataugas.

The Chinese liberation shoe tried half-heartedly to split the difference and failed. It floods and then traps water in the sealed, rubber bottom. Then your foot stews all day in a hot, soggy package that breeds malodorous funk and ringworm. And even when you take the liberation shoes off, they take a long time to dry. Too often, the shoes wouldn’t be completely dry before the soldiers had to put them back on.

So imagine that you go hiking for a couple days, and you carry a hunk of cheese in a damp Ziploc bag. That’s your foot.

I lived in China many a long year, and I’ve smelled a few things. So I know that when a Chinese infantry soldier, a man who can march for days on 1000 calories without complaint and link arms to walk through a field acting as a human mine detector–when that man admits that a shoe “smells terrible,” it means that “dogs would faint.”

In China that was still just a minor shortcoming–God bless the morale of the Chinese squaddie. But in the unremitting murk of the Laotian jungle, it was a deal-breaker. For the North Vietnamese draftee sent on the one-way journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the only blessing of his Chinese combat sneakers was that they would probably fall apart before they could give him trench foot. At the first opportunity, he would exchange them for the famous “Ho Chi Minh sandals” made from old tires.

Still, since the PLA saw fit to keep liberation shoes until just a decade ago, and they’re still bought and sold, I tried them out. Ten dollars and a day of sweaty feet are a small price to pay for Science.

My conclusion was that, unless you’re especially attracted to the color, you can ALL the benefits–the light weight, flexible sole, and low cost–with none of the athlete’s foot and odor just by buying a $10 pair of water shoes. If you’ve got actual capitalist money, try Palladiums or the imitations thereof. You’ll get the liberation shoe concept–light, flexible, and fleet of foot–just executed better, and “debugged” to keep you fungus free.

Burgerfeet

Human foot or cheap stew meat in butcher paper pulled from a dumpster?

“At GORUCK events, people’s foot care is surprisingly poor,” said the former ultra runner somewhere around Mile 20. I smarted at the comment, but I couldn’t deny it: the inside of my own boot was slowly grating my little toe like parmesan.

You meet a wide rainbow of fellow weirdos at GORUCK challenges with different athletic backgrounds, ranging from Crossfitters (the most numerous) all the way to equestrian gymnast(!). This was the first time I’d encountered a serious distance runner, though, and it became clear that that community was privy to an advanced science of foot health as foreign to the rest of us as architecture was to Visigoths and Huns.

At the moment, neither he nor I had breath for a long tutorial on the subject, but I resolved to study more after our team lost our second member of the night to foot injury and my own foot was being ground up into burger meat.

Here’s part of what I learned, most of it from Jon Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet and friends like Scott H., Nick F., and Sgt. Šileika:

  • Your shoes are probably too small. As I’ve related before, I was wearing a 9½ when I should have worn a 10½ Wide. Ideally, get your feet measured by someone at a specialized store, like REI or a running store. And when you take the insoles out of your shoes and stand on them, if any part of your foot overhangs (or even reaches) the edges of the insole, you need bigger shoes.
  • Your feet get bigger with age, not least of all as they become more muscular with training! That seems strange–I always thought of my shoe size as an immutable given, like my height–but on reflection it’s perfectly intuitive. Feet are made mostly of muscle, and they respond to training like other muscles. If you start doing pull-ups for hours at a time, your back and arms will outgrow your shirts. Likewise, if you backpack for hours at a time, your foot muscles might well outgrow your old shoes.
  • Keep your feet dry. I hate this rule because I like charging through streams and doing water PT and I hate halting afterward to change socks, but it’s helped me stop getting Burgerfeet™.
  • Speaking of dry and happy feet, cotton socks are the devil. Wear wool or one of the new space-age moisture-wicking products. And it seems that most runners wear more than one sock layer.
  • Socks are like holsters: You have to try a bunch to find the right setup. You’ll end up with a drawer full of rejects–live with it.
  • And a sock setup that works with one pair of shoes does not necessarily work with another. (See “socks-are-like-holsters” above.)
  • Moisturize your feet every day. Most of the pros also lubricate their feet before they put on their socks.
  • Athletic tape from the corner drug store has been superseded by things like Leukotape and ENGO pads.

Forty-Mile Ruck: Lessons Learned

To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.

I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?

That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.

This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!

What I Did Badly

Feeling so sluggish, I sensed I was in for a long day. But I had no idea just how long.

First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.

I am blessed to live out in the country. Only problem is, my body thinks it belongs in a different country.

What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.

I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.

If you want to geek out on this stuff, read the work of Mike Prevost.

By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.

Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.

Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.

Ridiculous math like this is an example of why the metric Mondopoint system is so great. You measure your feet in millimeters. That’s your size. Simple.

However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!

What Went Great

Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.

Our Lady of Electrolytes and Mr. Delirium

Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.

Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.

The Great Takeaway

The home stretch. From this bridge, it’s 3 miles to my door. The last time I passed it feeling this tired was only a few months ago. That night I was doing my first 12-miler, but now that’s just a warmup. Reflecting on that was a real morale boost. #cookiejar

I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.

Rucking up at Mile 23. Don’t believe the smile, it’s a lie. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself here. Out of the frame, milady’s Prius is whispering, “Give up! I’ll take you home right now. How about some air conditioning?”

And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”