For 'Sole Man' In China, One Shoeless Step At A Time

Arthur Jones, 'Sole Man,' living a year of his life barefoot in China i i

Self-proclaimed "Sole Man" Arthur Jones is an English filmmaker living in China who is in the midst of an unusual mission: spending a year barefoot. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Arthur Jones, 'Sole Man,' living a year of his life barefoot in China

Self-proclaimed "Sole Man" Arthur Jones is an English filmmaker living in China who is in the midst of an unusual mission: spending a year barefoot.

Louisa Lim/NPR

He calls himself the "Sole Man." Englishman Arthur Jones, who lives in China, has embarked on a yearlong mission to live his life barefoot. He is one of a growing tribe of "barefooters" who have sworn off footwear, whatever the weather.

Unlike many other barefooters, however, he lives in the heart of an urban jungle, in the center of Shanghai. He's continuing his daily life shoeless, conducting business meetings and doing his job as a filmmaker.

"I've always liked being barefoot from being a kid," Jones says, explaining his yearlong experiment, which he is hoping to turn into a film. "It's turned into something that's made everyday life more exciting. It opens your eyes. You're suddenly in touch with everything around. And it feels like you're a little child discovering the world for the first time."

Barefooters like to cite recent scientific research showing the health advantages to a barefoot lifestyle. One example is a paper earlier this year in the journal Nature by Harvard University human evolutionary biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman, which found that barefoot runners place less stress on their feet than runners wearing shoes. This happens because barefooters change the way they run, landing on the balls of their feet instead of their heels, thereby markedly reducing the "impact collision" or "heel-strike."

A survey from 1949 went a step further and actually concluded that shoes were the cause of many foot ailments. It mostly looked at rickshaw runners in India and China who had never worn shoes and found they had fewer instances of fungal infections or foot defects than normal.

Feet For All Seasons

Of course, the downside to being barefoot in a modern urban environment is the danger of puncture wounds and infection, but Jones says this is less common than one would imagine.

"I've walked over quite a lot of glass and never been cut once," he says, adding, however, that being barefoot does change the way you see the city. "You don't take anything else in; you spend the entire time staring at the floor."

In Shanghai, with its pressure-cooker summers, the heat of the pavements can be a problem, he admits, as he crosses the street at a zebra crossing.

"If this was the middle of the summer, and it was a really, really hot day," he says. "You'd be jumping across the white stripes and avoiding the black, because the white stripes are significantly cooler than the black."

Jones says he spent "about a month and a half" of the summer with blistered feet, though he says the blisters weren't painful.

Winter, too, is posing its own challenges, as Jones found when he shot a TV commercial in Norway in late September during a surprise snowfall. He describes walking barefoot through two icy streams and the snow as his feet got colder and colder.

"I thought, 'This is crazy. How long does it take before I get frostbite?' " he says.

But then something unexpected happened.

"While I was still walking, I got this sudden rush of warmth in my toes. I was half-thinking, 'Is this the first sign of frostbite?' But it felt like warmth, and after about five minutes, I started getting cold again, then hot again," he says.

Jones describes a "cycle of warm flushes in his feet" over a two-hour period, which he later discovered was a medical phenomenon known as "cold-induced vasodilation," a process that acts as a protective mechanism preventing injury to the extremities in very cold weather.

Openness To The Barefoot Way Of Life

In general, Jones says Shanghai is a surprisingly easy place to go barefoot, having less gravel than some Western cities, as well as an open-mindedness to barefooters, which perhaps has roots in traditional Chinese medicine.

"The idea in Chinese medical theory is connected to reflexology, which is that there are certain pressure points in the bottom of the foot, which if you press them or stimulate them, they'll help to restore balance in the rest of the body," he explains.

There are even some parks in the city that have barefoot walking tracks, designed with reflexology in mind.

Several months into his barefoot quest, Jones says despite the broiling summer and chilly winter, he's still enjoying the experience.

"When you put your foot back into a shoe having been barefoot, it doesn't feel right anymore," he says.

He says even after his enforced year of shoelessness is over, he is likely to continue the barefoot way of life.

"What I'm thinking is at the end of this year, I'll put shoes on when I need to put shoes on," he says, "just like I put gloves on when my hands get cold."

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