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forward troubles asia

November 2, 2010

Linglong (玲珑) Issue 122, 1933
“The origins of breast and waist-binding” (“妇女束胸与束腰起源”)
By: Lin Lianying (林莲莹)

“At one time, women believed that flat breasts and a small and delicate waist were beautiful, so they used all sorts of methods to flatten their breasts (胸部 xiongbu), and to bind their waists small.”

“The baneful influence of breast-binding in our country is large, even today most women believe that the way to make themselves beautiful is to make their breasts flat (平板 pingban – very negative term which means “flat and monotonous”), and this is to show that they are chase and virtuous women (贞节 zhenjie).”

Linglong, translated as Elegance, was a Shanghai based women’s period that was in publication from 1931-1937. Columbia University has hosted its collection of the magazine HERE, which is a great resource for anyone who is interested in this topic and can read Chinese, or anyone who just wants to look at some cool images.

Lin writes that there isn’t a record of the origins of breast-binding in China but that Western research says it started early. A 1927 article in Beiyang Huabao by Wan Xianggezhu titled “关于小衫的考据” (Guanyu xiaoshan de kaoju – Textual Research about the Little Shirt) also deals with the issue of the origins of breast-binding but Wan says that a quote from the Spring and Autumn Annals (which covers 722 BCE to 481 BCE) is the first textual evidence of breast-binding. As anyone who has read Classical Chinese knows, it is difficult (!!!) so I am still searching for the reference in the Annals and will write about it when I get there. Wan’s article describes how the so-called wadu (袜肚 – stomach sock)or wafu (袜腹 – abdomen sock) of the past was actually a moxiong (抹胸) and those earlier terms were just to cover up that women used these garments to bind their breasts (shu ru – 束乳). Lin doesn’t discuss this but she does mention in her article that an ancient official’s mural shows that women draped a cloth over their breasts that was similar to the contemporary little vest. This debate and interest in how breast-binding began, as if that would be some clue as to how to eradicate the custom, reminds me of the myths surrounding footbinding’s origin, which is elegantly discussed in Dorothy Ko’s Cinderella’s Sisters.

Interestingly enough, Lin also details how ancient Greek and Egyptian women also bound their breasts. You might remember from the Wu Hao article I recently wrote about that plenty of male writers from the same period were describing the merits of the Ancient Greek way of life and praising the Ancient Greeks for their willingness to embrace their natural bodies. Lin, however, remarks that when the Ancient Greeks were “on the decline,” they tended towards decadent customs and the women began to “use all kinds of methods to put their bodies in shackles.” This connection between bodily practice and societies in decline is an interesting and effecting one, especially for China in the early 20th century. For Chinese living in the early 1930s, the past 100 years had seen China face defeat at the hands of “strong” European countries and “weak” Asian neighbors alike, colonialism, and popular uprisings. Many felt in China were anxious about the position of their nation, so Lin’s description of how breast and waist-binding became extreme during the decline of the Greek and Roman civilizations is incredibly savvy – it is a warning to all Chinese about the dangers of breast-binding and how it can negatively influence the nation/culture. Lin seems to be saying: “Look! It happened before and we need to avoid their mistakes!” While it would make sense to say that the need for more bodily control – as seen with the (supposedly) more extreme binding happening at the time – was a way for women to personally manage national and cultural instability, it is also totally possible that Chinese from the period thought that breast-binding was getting worse only because it was being discussed in public for the first time!

Other articles I have read about the topic have included mentions of the problems of a beauty ideal that emphasizes small waists and a slender profile, but this article is the first that mentions the dangers of “waist binding” (束腰). When I looked the word up in my dictionary, it was translated as “girdle,” which creates an interesting tie to Western fashion and bodily practices since corseting was often the the practice that was most frequently compared to footbinding. On the other hand, Lin does say that the influence of waist-binding in China is much less severe than that of breast-binding. Unlike other voices in the debate, who often noted that although corseting and other Western practices were bad, they were still preferable to Chinese practices, Lin doesn’t rely on the West as a golden standard for China. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Victorians all mangled women’s bodies in some way, and even Western Europe’s “modern” (摩登 modeng) women continue to diligently bind their waists. Thus, the West isn’t so advanced after all!

I always try to watch what words are being used to signify woman and breast. In this article, xiongbu is used, which removes women’s bodies from their roles as mothers/breast-feeders.

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