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“The evil custom of breast-binding is still in vogue”

October 12, 2010

“This is a time of knowledge and open-mindedness, the custom of footbinding is at long last swept away. However, the evil custom of breast-binding is still in vogue, which strikes a serious blow to the harmony and balance of the beautiful curves of a woman’s body.”

Male author, quoted in Wu Hao’s “都会雲裳,” p. 74

“Men with large chests become Prime Minister, women with large chests are shrew mothers”

Famous Guangdong saying, quoted on p. 74

Prof. Dorothy Ko, who was my teacher and guide at Columbia University, sent me two recently published articles on breast-binding which have served as a really nice way to begin my research. I am currently reading through the second of these articles but I finished the first, a chapter (小马甲束胸秘史 – roughly The Secret History of the “Little Vest” and Breast-Binding) from Wu Hao’s (吴昊) book “都会雲裳.”


Image of different binding garments. First row, from left: Doudu, Moxiong (Old Style,) Moxiong (New Style.) Second row, from left: Banjie Majia (“Half Vest,”) Xiao Majia (“Little Vest,”) Moxiong (Newest Style.) From Wu Hao, p. 78.

The above image was originally printed in the Beiyang Pictorial and it is an image of the different styles of undergarments/garments used to bind breasts. Wu Hao says that 20th century women used old and new style garments at the same time and that there were a variety of styles in use at one time. This is definitely something I want to pursue and continue to look into throughout my research!

First and foremost, it should be stated that the author, Wu Hao, firmly believes that breast-binding was a negative, oppressive practice. When referring to the classical Chinese ideal of beauty for women, Wu uses the term 病态 (bing tai) which means sallow or morbid looking. At another point later in the chapter she refers to the “shackles” (束缚) on women’s bodies.

Wu Hao and the primary sources used in the article all point to breast-binding as a means of preventing shame. Traditional ideas of beauty in China promoted a flat chest and associated large chests with shrews and rural women. Chinese women were afraid and ashamed of exposing their breasts and thus, they bound them to minimize them and prevent exposure. Wu argues that women who bound their breasts erased sex difference and emphasized virtue, chastity, and innocence. These women erased external desire. Wu also argues that Chinese men used breast-binding as a way to mold dutiful wives and loving mothers (贤妻良母).

But, breast-binding is bad for a woman’s health, or so say the quoted authors. According to the primary sources in Wu’s text (I am missing the references page and have not been able to go to the ECNU library to get it yet!), most of which are from periodicals from the early 20th century, breast-binding hinders blood circulations, obstructs breast development and, according to an article from the July 8, 1920 issue of Minguo Ribao, breast-binding can even cause tuberculosis. While I don’t know the real effects of breast-binding at this moment, the claim that minimizing one’s breasts can cause tuberculosis seems ridiculous since I immediately think of contemporary minimizer and sports bras and their lack of detrimental health effects.

The idea of “natural beauty,” which was not native to China, is another essential element to the critiques of breast-binding. As one author puts it: “All people have a natural beauty” (“人都有自然的美,” p. 77). And of course, the primary sources are rife with comparisons to Western women. One author argues that Chinese “new women,” the educated ones with short hair, practice the least civilized behaviors, while another author argues that breasts are actually a very important and essential part of a woman’s body and adds that this must be true because Western women use cotton wadding to make their breasts appear larger. Corsetting comes up as a comparable practice to breast-binding but Chinese reformers, for the most part, believed that breast-binding was much more harmful than corsetting and wearing girdles. In particular, Ancient Greece comes up again and again as a model for China. A January 16, 1921 article in Minguo Ribao argues that the Greeks were happier because they were free enough to strip off their clothes at any time, while the Chinese continue to bundle and bind their bodies.

Maybe it is just me (and it could very easily be!) but I continue to be fascinated by the terminology surrounding breast-binding and women’s bodies, here is a list of a few of them:

束乳 (Shu ru) – Breast-binding, but in this case breast is denoted by ru (乳) which also refers to breast milk. This term, with its reference to breast feeding and child rearing,  is often used when someone particularly wants to make a point about the dangers of breast-binding. Over time, the term for breast shifted from 胸部 (roughly: chest) to 乳部 (literally “milk section”)

束胸 (Shu xiong) – Breast-binding, this is the most commonly used term to denote breast-binding. Another way to say breast-binding is: 缚乳 (fu ru) or 缚胸 (fu xiong) – “to tie up/bind breast.”

平胸 (Ping xiong) – Flat chest, which was part of classical Chinese notions of beauty

天乳运动 (Tianru yundong) – “Natural breast movement” – tian literally means sky/heaven and was also used in the term “natural foot” (tianzu) during the anti-footbinding movement.

曲线 (Qu xia) – The curves of a woman’s body

胸脯 (Xiong pu) and 乳脯 (Ru pu) – Breast flesh, this is such a visceral way of referring to the breast that I had to take note of it

审美 (Shen mei) – Roughly: the appreciation of beauty

身段 (Shen duan) – A woman’s figure, aesthetically

女流 (Nv liu) – “The weaker sex”

体质 or 体格 (Ti zhi or Ti ge) – Physique, I would be interested to learn when this word came into use in China. To me, physique refers to physical fitness and health, which didn’t become issues in China until the time period I am researching. During this time, there was a new emphasis on physical well being and sports.

Another interesting term used throughout the primary sources in Wu’s text is 妇女. Although 妇女 is the most common way to denote “woman” in modern Chinese, it was a newly reclaimed word in the early 20th century. I will talk about this later but I wanted to make sure to make a note of it!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010 10:05 am

    Jamie–
    Have been very out of touch since last we were in Beijing, but I’m *very* excited for you and for this Fulbright project… not to mention that the fashion/music commentary makes for enjoyable additional reading.

    Take care, and I can’t wait for more!

    Best,
    Sarah.

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