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historically, women use poison

November 1, 2010

Beiyang Huabao, May 4, 1927
“A big question for women’s attire – should the little shirt “(小衫) be preserved or not?”
“妇女装束的一个大问题 – 小衫制应否保存”
By Wan Xiangezhu (绾香阁主)

Beiyang Huabao, unlike Linglong or Funü Zazhi (or countless others that you will get to read about over the course of my research,) was not a publication solely aimed at female readers but throughout 1927 there were a series of articles about the dangers of breast-binding, the history of breast-binding garments, and the new Western brassiere as a preferred alternative to Chinese undergarments. Over the past two weeks I have been reading through BYHB’s issues from 1927, and I plan on going through the rest of the magazine’s run over the course of the next month. The first article about breast-binding in BYHB, titled “A big question about women’s attire – should the ‘little shirt’ be preserved or not?,” was published on May 4, 1927. BYHB prefaces Wan’s article by explaining that this is a new piece of thinking by a woman and that BYHB would like to begin a public discussion about this problem because it is a very important issue related to women.

Wan’s article is a slightly confusing literature review but before she begins discussing recent articles in Huan Zhou (幻洲) about breast-binding, she emphasizes that breast-binding is a social problem. Not only does it directly influence women’s health, but it also indirectly influences the happiness of the family, the healthiness of children, and the development of society. To Wan, it should be a prerequisite of women’s liberation but more interesting is her frequent assertion that breast-binding and women’s bodily practices directly (negatively) influence society. Under this thinking, the private is public; there is nothing so personal that it can avoid being discussed publicly or that it can not effect the growth of the Chinese nation/race. At the end of the essay, Wan once again argues that there should be a public debate about this problem because it isn’t just a question of what to wear, but it is directly related to society.

But Wan’s gripe isn’t necessarily with breast-binding as a practice, but with the devices used to bind breasts: all the varieties of the little shirt (xiaoshan). She reiterates that her goal is to discuss with everyone why it is essential that the “little shirt” should ceased to be used and how to improve and change the methods of binding. It is interesting that Wan, a woman, isn’t critiquing the standards of beauty that create the desire for a flat chest (pingxiong) but the devices women use to fit into this standard.

At the center of Wan’s article is a discussion of recent articles on breast-binding. This part is a little confusing to me and thus I must apologize in advance if it doesn’t make a lot of sense here. Wan says that an article by Zhang Jingsheng in the January, 1927 (#8) issue of Huan Zhou (幻洲) titled “美的人生观” (Mei de rensheng guan – A philosophy of beauty,) in which Zhang repeatedly argues for the little shirt, contradicts his earlier writings in 新文化 (Xin Wenhua – New Culture.) Wan is curious as to how and why Zhang could have changed his mind, but first she quotes from Zhang’s essay in Huan Zhou (幻洲):

Zhang’s Essay in Huan Zhou (幻洲):

“Recently physiology opposes [the little shirt,] to advocate for liberation is to advocate for the abolition of the little shirt, it says that it hinders lung breathing, that it obstructs development. I don’t dare to absolutely say they are unreasonable, but biological function is due to circumstance and forming suitable exercises, once a woman has already gotten used to it [the little shirt], her breathing can naturally become comfortable….Thus to count the little shirt as hindering women’s development is to ‘refuse to eat for fear of choking’ (因噎废食 – Chinese idiom.) Thus, I feel the little shirt is necessary. Why? It is because this thing is the crystallization of the art of love (因为小衫这件东西是爱的艺术的结晶). Women, apart from sexual love, sink into a dull and lonely life. In short, I feel it is necessary because it can rise men’s (男性) sense of beauty, and make him want romantic love.”

Zhang then tells the story of his trip to Guangzhou that confirmed his belief in the need for the little shirt. The setting of his story was muddled in the piece but what I got from it was that in Guangzhou, a group of prostitutes who live on a boat hang their undergarments (especially their little shirts) out in front of the boat for men to see. According to Zhang, “When men see this, they are overwhelmed with joy, they associate it with intimate bedroom things, and they can’t help but only desire her…this especially is the clear proof that the little shirt is the art of love.”

A few thoughts: First, Guangzhou (“the south”) is often used as the setting for these stories about the little shirt. I immediately think of Sophie Volpp’s article “Classifying Lust: The Seventeenth-Century Vogue for Male Love” (published in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 61, No. 1) which discusses the “ethnography of the self.” I might have the citation wrong, it could be a different article, but Volpp describes how 17th century authors described how male love was popular in Southern China. These authors would relay long, detailed stories that they “heard” from others about how male-male marriage, love, and lust were all popular in Southern China (Guangzhou or Fujian); they relegated the “strange” to the strange, unknown south, even if these same practices actually existed around them. This frequent discussion of breast-binding in relation to Guangzhou seems to me to be along the same line of thought!

Secondly, in Zhang’s essay, the little shirt, the object, has become synonymous with sex and it has come to replace the female body as the site of desire. Zhang compares the relationship between sexual thought and the little shirt to how he used to wave a red flag in front of his goldfish before he would feed them. Eventually, the gold fish came to associate the red flag with food and they would become anxious for food when they would see it. The little shirt does the same thing to men because it makes men’s sexual desires rise up when they see it. Sex is visual and material as much as it is physical. Men do not find the sight of bare breasts titillating as much as they find the sight of undergarments titillating. This is only further emphasized in the following quote:

“If you get rid of the little shirt, doesn’t that eliminate the fever of men’s sexual urges? Another case in point, when us men see a woman exposing her two breasts to feed children, this does not bring about sexual urges in us, if we see a woman wearing undergarments, our male sexual urges thereupon become boiling hot.“ (更有一个名正我们见了妇女露出两乳哺儿, 是不大起我们性欲的思想, 若是见了一个妇女穿小衣, 我们男性的欲便热沸起来了.)

The association between object and sex is also present in the practice of footbinding. Bound feet weren’t fetishized – if you even want to argue that anything was fetishized in the practice of footbinding, which I don’t necessarily want to do…ever – because they were never seen, but shoes for bound feet were viewed, dissected, cataloged, and desired. While that same kind of scrutiny doesn’t seem to have existed for undergarments, according to Zhang the little shirt is tied with sexuality in the minds of men. Zhang closes his essay with two points. The first: Men need to develop even more their innate knowledge/appreciation of undergarments. The second: Women’s (女性) need is to be even more particular about the material, shape, style, color, and decorative elements of undergarments. He reaffirms that knowledge of undergarments is necessary for both sexes because these garments adequately satisfy the inner urges of both sexes. Are the inner (sexual) urges of women related to personalization/decorative arts/materials? And men’s are tied with an appreciation and knowledge of objects? While my politics as a historian would lead me to almost whole-heartedly disagree with any time a man tries to classify female sexuality, there are elements to Zhang’s thinking that have merit. Not that women’s sexuality has to do with wearing pretty objects, but that there is a personal joy in personalizing one’s clothing and choosing styles. Zhang is also advocating for a more open, transparent sexuality – one in which women and men satisfy their inner urges and women expose and discuss their undergarments – while advocating the preservation of “traditional” Chinese practices like the little shirt/breast-binding. Definitely interesting!


Wan argues that she has two conjectures about Zhang’s article, both of which involve the article being a fake. And it turns out (? This part in Wan’s article is a bit confusing) that it is! Unfortunately for my purposes, the article actually written by Zhang, “是也上海流氓的一种” (Shi ye Shanghai liumang de yi zhong – A kind of Shanghai immoral behavior (?)) from 新文化 (New Culture,) isn’t half as interesting or complex as the fake Zhang article. There is also mention of an article “课体研究” (Keti yanjiu – Body Studies? Lessons of Body Research?). It is important to note that Zhang frequently uses naibu (奶部) to describe breasts in this second article, which connects women’s bodies to their supposedly “natural” roles as breast-feeders and mothers to the Chinese nation’s strong, healthy children.

Zhang’s article is basically a retread of Wan’s arguments against the little shirt earlier in the article:

“Our customs make beautiful breasts by using undergarments to bind until a flat chest…this makes women become men, and it makes men unable to see breasts…although it is said to succeed at courtesy, the results of this horrible practice are unspeakable: it is not only ugly but also unhygienic, women can’t breathe, they can only use shoulders to breathe (?), and therefore, due to this, many women suffer from lung illness and die.”

It is interesting that Zhang argues that breast-binding makes women become men, when it was actually believed to be a symbol of womanly virtues. Furthermore, Zhang later asserts that women who bind their breasts lack the ability to create breast milk to provide for their children, and this influences the growth of the Chinese race. Around this time, Margaret Sanger and other supporters of eugenics were becoming increasingly popular within China, so it makes sense that race talk becomes a part of the discourse around breast-binding.

Interesting words:
浪漫 (langman) – Debauched or Romantic (Romanticism is浪漫主义.) This has little to do with my research but it is an odd combination of meanings.

窄小 (zhaixiao) – Small and narrow, used to describe clothing. The overwhelming desire for zhaixiao is why the little shirt has continued to be used.

生理 (shengli) – Physiology (add xue to make this the STUDY of physiology.) This field comes up quite a bit in articles about breast-binding, especially as Western science becomes a symbol of rationality, truth, and modernity within Chinese society. For example, nearly every time that breast-binding is described as bad, the author brings up that plenty of Physiology books have said so, as if science/physiology
卫生 (weisheng) – Hygiene, much of Wan’s reasoning against the little shirt is because she believes the little shirt isn’t hygienic. However she never exactly describes why – is it because women wear the same little shirt over and over again? Is it because it impedes breast development? Is it because it pushes skin together?

闺秀 (guixiu) – Literary/Scholarly woman
小衣 (xiaoyi) – Undergarment
奶汁(naizhi) – Breast milk
奶部压抑 (Naibu yaiyi) – Literally: to constrain milk area, another way of saying breast-binding!
种族 (zhongzu) – Race
女同胞们 (nütong baomen) – Female compatriots
(做)小马夹 (xiaomajia) or (做)小背心 (xiaobeixin) – Other terms for the little shirt, north of the Yangtze River
衫仔(shanzai) – Term for little shirt in Guangzhou

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