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Sports Culture and Breast-binding

October 16, 2010

The second chapter that Prof. Ko sent me was from You Chien-Ming’s (Jianming, 游鑑明) “Inside and Outside the Exercise Yard: East China Women’s Physical Education” (运动场内外: 近代华东地区的女子体育) – which is, for the record, a very rough translation of the title. The section was not directly about the logistics of breast-binding (how to bind, when binding began, what was used to bind, etc.) like Wu Hao’s chapter I read a few days ago, but was about physical education and sports culture in early 20th century China. This new emphasis on physical education and physical activity helped to lead an official and personal backlash against breast-binding.

You begins the section by describing the highly competitive world of school sports. Briefly: School sports were reflections of the prestige and achievements of the school and its physical education programs. Due to the high-stakes nature of these events, schools had strict rules for student participation in these events and Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Jiangsu Province schools required their students, without exception, to participate in at least one event. Student athletes were seen as representatives of their schools and were also required to have high grades and “morals.” Later on in the chapter, You details how important it was for all students to have an “opportunity” at physical education. Schools would break their physical education classes into three grades based on skill and made special conditions for girls who were menstruating. For example, at Hangzhou Women’s Middle School, menstruating girls were able to have three days off from gym class but were forced to watch the class from the side. I have to wonder if that didn’t add an element of shame and humiliation to sitting out of class and if it caused some girls to quietly participate anyway while on their periods.

East China women’s schools regulated the bodily practices of all of their students, regardless of whether or not they were athletes. According to the personal account of Yang Zilie, who was a student at Wuchang Women’s Teacher Training school (武昌女子师范学校 – the term 师范 shifan comes up a lot throughout the article, I have it translated as “teacher training” and if these schools were training schools for teachers, that adds another interesting element to their regulations on personal appearance. Female teachers had to be examples for their students and hence it was necessary for teachers to have proper physical education and hygiene practices etc.) once Yang received May 4th teachings in school, she ripped off her own little vest (小背心). Her fellow students would go to Shai Yichang (晒衣场 – I will assume that this is a shopping area since 衣场 roughly means clothing market?) and rip off the little vests of other women.

These student-led witch hunts that Yang discusses bring up some interesting issues: women policing the appearances of other women, the breakdown of public/private – it had to have been incredibly humiliating to have another woman rip off your undergarments in public, and, probably, generational differences between younger and older women etc. It is really fascinating and I definitely want to spend more time trying to find out more about these student led activities, perhaps by first starting with the book that You quotes from Yang Zilie, “往事如烟.”

Schools strictly carried out anti-breast binding regulations and policed the bodily practices of their female students. In December of 1928, Songjiang Women’s Middle School (? 松江女中) decided to inspect the undergarments of its students. In January, the Instruction Committee agreed to send six members to the women’s dorms to inspect their suitcases. This raid found over 90 little vests and little shirts (小衬衫). The school’s reasoning for this raid? “To promote physical education and to liberate bodies from binding,” (from “学校大事记”; “训导处消息” in 松江女中校刊 #3 Feb. 1929 pages 1 and 8). You Chien-ming brings up other examples of such policing efforts like student security groups advocating investigations into students who bind and the Shanghai Girls’ Middle School sending in a female worker specifically responsible for conducting inspections for little vests and binding garments in the female dorms.

As schools began banning breast-binding, they also started to require gym clothes for their students. At Hangzhou Women’s Middle School, students had to wear gym clothes for gym class. If they didn’t, it was as if they didn’t attend class and they faced strict disciplinary action.

One of the things I most appreciated about You’s article is that she shows some compassion for the women who bound their breasts and for the complicated decision to bind/unbind. She argues that most schools did not take the personal feelings of their female students into account when they created regulations for female students. As You says, many female students agonized over whether or not to “liberate” their breasts, and if they did unbind, they would have to face possible embarrassment or awkwardness in gymnastics classes often taught by men. This shame reminds me of what Wu Hao discussed in her chapter about breast-binding. Despite the public outcry against breast-binding, having large breasts or even slightly exposing one’s breasts was a huge source of embarrassment and shame for Chinese women. This is why even women who argued against breast-binding, like Yang Zilie, recognized that to unbind one’s breasts meant that one had to have the courage to not be afraid of the ridicule of others.

You argues that while requiring gym clothes and forbidding breast-binding were different issues, schools used them both as a means to regulate women’s bodies. Furthermore, these issues became ways for schools to use public power (from the national debate around sports and breast-binding) to invade the homes of women. It seems like a correct argument to me and this breakdown of public and private space is really interesting and another issue I want to add to my project.

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