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What is curvaceous beauty?

December 15, 2015

This post has been sitting in drafts for over 4 years. I’ve published as is.


December 15, 2015

This post has been sitting in drafts for over 4 years. I’ve published it as is. Please enjoy this kid chompin’ down on a breast.

Women’s Underwear, 1930 and 1946

December 15, 2015

This post has been sitting in drafts for over 4 years, I’ve published it as is.

Scan of “Women’s Underwear” (女子内衣) article

“Women’s Underwear” (女子内衣)
From Wanyou Zhoukan (万有周刊) vol. 1 no. 31 (1930)
By Shui (帨)

“Pair of Flesh Peaks Inserted into Clouds: Women’s New Brassiere” (肉峯双插云:女子新奶罩 rou feng shuang cha yun: nüzi xin naizhao)
From Domestic and Abroad Annals (VERY ROUGH TRANSLATION 中外春秋 zhongwai chunqiu) no. 6 (September 28, 1946)
By Tang Xiang

Here are two short articles about undergarments, one from 1930 and one from 1946.

If you remember from way back in my research, the bra was first introduced to China in the late 1920s but it was not particularly popular. This appears to still be the case even in 1946 because this article begins with an acknowledgement that the number of Chinese women who wear a bra is still quite low, even though most foreign (外国) women wear them. The brassiere has all kinds of benefits though, the first being that it can protect the “height” of breasts. Women wish that their breasts (奶奶 nainai, a term connected to breast milk) stay high and the bra helps prevent breasts from sagging. One way of describing the beauty of women’s breasts (胸部 xiongbu) is “双峯插云” meaning “Two peaks inserted into clouds” – a saying that appears often in my research.

European Medieval Lingerie

July 29, 2012

European scholar Beatrix Nutz has published an article about a few undergarments she found from the 15th Century that could be the world’s earliest bras! I highly recommend checking out the link above and this Q&A from the Smithsonian’s Threaded blog.


October 9, 2011

So many apologies for falling off the face of the earth when my grant ended! I have been super busy working full time so I haven’t thought too much about my research but that is going to change soon as my good friend Milano Chow of Oso Press has agreed to publish a zine of my research titled “Tour of China”. Over the next few weeks I will be updating this blog a little bit more (hopefully) and when the zine is ready, I will post a link for those who are interested in purchasing one!

Also, a few links of interest:

Gail Hershatter discusses her new book The Gender of Memory
I saw Prof. Hershatter speak about this book at ECNU in early July. She spent years interviewing women in rural Shaanxi province about the early Communist period. I can not wait to get this!

Fellow Fulbrighter Lua Wilkinson on maternal migration in China

Modern Homes for Modern Families in Tianjin, China, 1860-1949, by ELIZABETH LaCOUTURE on Dissertation Reviews

Women’s Medicine in the Qing Dynasty

July 8, 2011

I have been a bit crazy as I have one week before I return to the U.S. but while I get my things together, enjoy this interview with Yi-li Wu about her recent book on women’s medicine in the Qing Dynasty. I need to read this book!

How to Choose a Wet Nurse / The Frequency of Breastfeeding

June 27, 2011

“What You Should Pay Attention to When Hiring a Wet Nurse” (雇奶妈应当怎么样注意 gu naima yingdang zenmeyang zhuyi)
By: Bao Qiexu (鲍洯胥)
Popular Medical Journal (通俗医事月刊 tongsu yishi yuekan)
#1 October 1919, 33-35

“Frequency of Breastfeeding” (哺乳的次数 buru de cishu)
By: Bao Qiexu (鲍洯胥)
Popular Medical Journal (通俗医事月刊 tongsu yishi yuekan)
#1 October 1919, page 36

Bao Qiexu wrote two articles about breastfeeding and wet nurses in the introductory issue of Popular Medical Journal from October 1919. Before I start to discuss these two articles, I should mention the opening letter of the issue. The editor writes that everyone is always discussing the strength or weakness of the nation and those who study the positions of countries in the world each have their own views about how countries become strong. One of these views is that equal knowledge of health/hygiene (卫生 weisheng) is a symbol of a country’s strength. It says something to me that a publication titled Popular Medical Journal is placing the propagation of knowledge about medicine under the rubric of national strength and progress. Basically, educating the (literate and one can assume wealthy) populace about health and hygiene is not just about improving their health but it is directly tied to the strength of the nation. This only reaffirms so much of what I have already said on this blog about the underlying nationalism behind much of the discussion about breastfeeding and breast binding.

At the very start of the article “How to Choose a Wet Nurse,” Bao emphasizes that the most critical part of rearing a child is nutrition and nothing is better for a child than human milk. The milk substitutes (代乳散 dairusan and 炼乳 lianru) that are sold in cities simply can not compare to human milk because one is natural (自然 ziran) and the other is man-made (人工 rengong). Bao continues and says that if for some reason a woman’s breast milk is insufficient or “because of other reasons,” then one must hire a wet nurse. However, great attention should be paid to hiring a wet nurse because there is a great connection between the wet nurse and the child. Once again the issue of “natural” versus “man-made” comes up again, with Bao firmly asserting that natural nutrition is the best. Is this a reaction to industrialization? The overwhelming number of those milk substitute products were made by foreign companies (you can see an example of an advertisement for one of these products in my post here) and they were marketed to the new urban classes. In some ways, they became a symbol of modernity, so why are they seen as negative?

The first thing to pay attention to when choosing a wet nurse is the wet nurse’s health. Bao repeatedly remarks that the connection between the wet nurse and the child is very strong. If the wet nurse has tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, scabies, or leprosy etc. etc. then she should not be hired because these kinds of illnesses are contagious and can be passed to the child through breast milk. Bao refers to a story he remembers from two years ago in which a woman who was afraid of breastfeeding – why she was afraid of breastfeeding is never mentioned – hired a wet nurse without considering the health of the wet nurse and her child developed a syphilis rash and became sickly and thin. In this article and others like it that I have read, there is a very palpable anxiety about infectious diseases. Is this because of an increase in disease or an increased knowledge about disease?

I am particularly fascinated by the way that wet nurses are discussed in this article. Although never explicitly mentioned in this article, the wet nurse occupied a very tenuous position within the household. In the Imperial period, a wet nurse gained unofficial entry to a family through her deep connection to the child she reared. While she lacked any official position, this role could give her power and influence over the child and open opportunities for her own children. Of course this position could create some anxiety in the family but did this anxiety about a wet nurse’s place within the family exist in the Republican period? During this period, there is a rhetorical dismantling of the large patriarchal family which is frequently described as the bastion of all that is backward/”traditional” in China. This “large family” (大家庭) is replaced with a new “small family” (小家庭) that has the young and modern husband/father and a love marriage at its center. Was there a place for wet nurses in this new nuclear family? From this article and others, it seems the answer is no.

Equally interesting is the connection between class and disease in this article. It is assumed that the kind of women who would be hired as wet nurses, presumably lower class women, would carry diseases. Of the diseases Bao mentions, he particularly harps on syphilis and mentions it repeatedly throughout his article. Syphilis is spread through sexual contact and in assuming that lower class women are more afflicted with the disease, there is an implicit sexualization of lower class women. This fits in with what I have seen regarding the exposure of breasts in public. Lower class women were associated with large breasts and after having a child, it was totally accepted that they could breast feed in public.

The second thing to pay attention to is “breast milk secretion” (乳汁分泌 ruzhifenbi) which is broken into three subsections: the shape of the breast, the wet nurse’s age, and when the wet nurse last gave birth. The first section is fairly straight forward: when choosing a wet nurse, you (wife/mother? husband/father?) should choose a woman with hemisphere shaped or “round hammer shaped” breasts that are slightly drooping. The skin should be tight and have a luster to it. The second item is also fairly straight forward. Once a prospective wet nurse’s breasts were examined, you should carefully investigate her age. The best age is 20-30 years old and ideally she will have given birth a few times already. The last section deals with when the wet nurse herself has last given birth. Typically, a woman chooses a wet nurse who has recently given birth but Bao suggests that the best is to choose a wet nurse who gave birth 1/2 month to 1 month before the mother. This way, you can know how much milk she produces and if she has any diseases because if she is contagious, her own child will be ill. Furthermore, you should pay attention to her living conditions and her diet. If she lives in a dirty place or if she eats “simple and coarse” food, she should not be hired because these things could affect your child. What woman who needed to earn extra money as a wet nurse could fulfill all of these requirements?Thus, it seems that hiring a wet nurse should be the last resort. The only people who could probably fulfill all of these requirements are the wealthy women who would have access to this magazine.

The second article, “Frequency of Breastfeeding,” begins with Bao acknowledging that it is hard to create a standard for how often a child should be breastfed because children’s ages and physiques can vary greatly. He writes that it is very important to pay attention to breastfeeding in the two days following the child’s birth. One (Bao doesn’t indicate birth mother or wet nurse here) should wait until twenty-four hours after the birth to do the first feeding and after that, the child should be breastfed 8-10 times until the third day, when it should start being fed 6-7 times per day. He notes that it is also very important to set a regular time for feeding and suggests that feeding every two hours is best. After two religious services (礼拜 li bai) – I do not know how much time that is – the child should be fed 5-6 times a day at an interval of 3 or 3 1/2 hours per feeding. At night, the feeding intervals can be slightly longer because it is best to develop the habit of not breastfeeding at night. Bao never lists why breastfeeding at night is bad but it might have something to do with digestion? He also instructs women to pay attention to how much breast milk is used during each feeding and whether or not the child’s physique (体格 ti ge) is good. When the mother’s breast milk – this is the first time mother is used – is plentiful, each feeding should last 10-15 minutes. If you feed a child too much, it won’t be able to digest all of the milk and it will slowly develop gastrointestinal illnesses. If you do not feed a child enough, its development (发育 fayu) will be hindered. Thus, you must pay attention to how much you breastfeed and consider the child health’s carefully.

It isn’t until halfway through this article that the mother of the child is mentioned by title, even though it is her time and energy at stake here more than the child’s. Of course Bao believes that the mother’s milk is the best milk but the strain that breastfeeding puts on her body is never discussed. Fellow Fulbrigher Lua Wilkinson is researching contemporary infant nutrtion and when I read her blog (linked above) I remember just how much time it takes for a woman to breastfeed. In Bao’s article, he says that after two religious festivals a child should be fed 5-6 times a day for 10-15 minutes per feeding. Perhaps this can be seen as a sign of the changes taking place with women’s labor during this period. Previously, women were tasked with their own form of labor which included managing the household and its finances, creating cloth and clothing, and raising children. With changes in this labor – for example clothing began to be mass-produced and purchased in stores – or an erasure of the very existence of this labor, wealthy women had more time (or were expected to have more time) to breastfeed and care for their children?

June 25, 2011

My grant ends in about 20 days and I am very behind in updating! I apologize for the lack of new posts, I have a huge stack of things to write about and there will be new posts soon.

A Young Woman’s Curves

June 19, 2011

“A Young Woman’s Curves” (少女之曲线美)
From Hubei Paper (鄂报 e bao, this is not an official translation of the title)
1941, no. 7

This is another piece from 鄂报 (Hubei Paper), published in 1941. I have read so much material that was published between 1910-1940 about the beauty of curves and nudity but this is one of the first non-art nude images of a Chinese woman published in a Chinese publication that I have found. The girl’s name is Li Hongying and she is seventeen years old, which is described puberty/youth (妙龄 miaoling). Her form still slightly has “child’s phenomena” (孩子气象 haizi qixiang). Then the text uses a series of chengyu to describe Li’s beauty:

天真烂漫 (tianzhenlanman) – innocent and artless; simple and unaffected. This chengyu has come up many times in my research in reference to natural beauty and women who do not use “artificial” beauty methods to ruin their bodies

螓首蛾眉 (qinshouemei) – refers to a large forehead and long and thin eyebrows, traditional symbols of beauty

秋水为神 (qiushuiweishen) – 秋水 (qiushui) refers to a woman’s fluid eyes, this is in reference to her spirit or essence?

巧笑倩兮 (qiaoxiaoqianxi) – Skillful + smile + pretty/winsome + particle, I have been looking in chengyu dictionaries for a real translation of this to no avail, I think I can assume it is about the charm of her smile.

In all honesty, there is something a wee bit creepy to me about the way this article gushes over Li’s beauty, especially after it made a point to mention that she still has some childlike traits. However, Li’s place as a young woman in between childhood and womanhood could be the reason why she was photographed for the magazine in the first place. She is still young enough that she does not necessarily have to be perceived as a sexual being. She is described as innocent and there is no reference to her assumed later roles as wife and mother, which in a way removes her from the realm of sexuality. However, the focus of the piece is on Li’s curves, which are sexualized. Furthermore, young women were precisely the group that anti-breast binding advocates were trying to reach because breast binding typically started during puberty. It is important that breast binding is never mentioned in the accompanying text. Li would have been born in 1924/5, after the debate on breast binding and “natural beauty” had already begun. Although women of all ages continued to bind their breasts during these debates, it is possible that Li was influence by these debates. But what kind of undergarments did she wear? Or, what if she did bind and her body was unaffected by it?

The person who photographed Li was so entranced by her beauty and her eyes that he (I assume he) forgot about everything else. The rest of the text talks about just how beautiful Li is: her skin is like “congealed fat” (凝脂 ningzhi) which I take to mean creamy, she is curvy, her breasts peak high and lofty (乳峯高聳 rufenggaosong), and she is graceful (绰约 chuoyue). Li Hongying is “so beautiful as to overrun cities and ruin states” (倾城倾国 qingchengqingguo) and she intoxicates people (陶醉 taozui). The text ends by claiming that Li is a rare beauty and treasure. Just from this little bit of text the reader can get some idea of what is valued in a woman: creamy (whiter?) skin, curves, breasts, a large forehead, thin eyebrows, and a certain spirit and smile. Li’s value as a woman is as an exemplar of beauty. Her life, interests, studies, work, and family are never referenced.

Women’s World

June 19, 2011

“Women’s World” (女世界)
From Hubei Paper (鄂报 e bao, this is not an official translation of the title)
1941 2(10)

This photo essay titled “Women’s World” was published in the early 1940s. I have not focused too much on this period yet but it is a pretty amazing piece and a great example of how much things changed during the Nanjing Decade. I appreciate that the four pages of images show women in a variety of occupations (actress, nurse, policewoman) and situations (relaxing, at home). Of course, I think it can be assumed that these are middle class women who live in larger cities or towns. I apologize that the scans are not very clear, I thought they had turned out well but they did not.

The top photo: A young woman in her room where, as the caption notes, men are forbidden. The caption mentions that although she wears beautiful clothing when she goes outside or when she has a guest over, she changes into more “common” clothing when she is in her room. This glimpse at the inner/private realm is fascinating to me. The home was always considered the woman’s world but the caption here delineates this space as her private space. Of course she shares it with other people since there is more than one bed in the room. But who – Her parents/family? Other young women? In one of my earliest posts about breast binding examinations, I mentioned the breakdown of private/public space during the Republican period. The photo above reminds me of how the definitions of public and private were changing during this period. Although the private realm is still the home, the home pictured above is nothing like the traditional home. The two realms interact with one another and women must navigate between the two.

Bottom left: The caption says that this young woman walked out from the bathroom and her slender (苗条miaotiao) body moved across the room to her bed, where she sat down and read some interesting things. It does not mention that she is nude in the photo. Not only is this image capturing a private, interior moment but it is also an elusive nude image of a Chinese woman, which is still quite a rarity in my research.

Bottom right: Part of the caption is cut off but it the photo is of two women whispering to one another.

Right: A woman lying in the grass on Hu Qin mountain in Suzhou, lost in her thoughts.

Top left corner: A group of theater actresses. They have to change clothes many times throughout a single performance, even in the summer.

Top right corner (left page): This is a group of young female nurses who work in a patient convalescence unit. The caption says that although nurses suffer quite a bit, these nurses have break time which the reader can assume is uncommon for the time. During their breaks they go to the library to read because time is scarce and they are ashamed of resting. I’m not entirely clear on the meaning of the last part but I am intrigued by the “sufferings” the caption hints at. Inequalities in the workplace? Poor working conditions? Low wages?

Bottom left corner: This is a group of Nanjing policewomen. They are “lively and exceptional” and on the job they are not second to men. However, during their leisure hours, sex difference is restored because these women spend their leisure time making clothes for their younger siblings. The caption sets up “male” vs. “female” leisure activities but what is more interesting to me is the extra work these working women have to take on in addition to their primary occupations. Not only do they seemingly work the same hours as men, they are also required to make clothing for their siblings. Even though they are “not second to men,” they are still expected to perform traditional female tasks.