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obliged to be bound

November 20, 2010

“A Big Question in Women’s Dress – (How) Should the Little Shirt be Improved/Reformed?”
妇女装束上的一个大问题 — 小衫应否何改良 (Funü zhuangshu shang de da wenti – xiao shan ying fou he gailiang)
By: Wan Xianggezhu (绾香阁主)
Beiyang Huabao (北样画报)
August 20, 1927

Yet another piece in Beiyang Huabao about breast-binding and undergarments! BYHB opens the latest entry by nothing that after Wan’s essay, the publication received many letters, nearly all of which opposed breast-binding (nüzi shuxiong 女子束胸.) Thus, it is clear that the so-called little shirt must be improved/reformed! There is a slippage in the early parts of this article. The beginning refers to Wan as “the author” (作者 zuo zhe, for example: “这是作者所希望的一种结果 – this is a result of the author’s hopes”) but then “our country” and “myself/I” begin to be used.

From here, (I assume) Wan asks: “Haven’t you seen that the South (南方) strictly enforces the natural breast movement (天乳运动)? Us in the North should also work our hardest for this.” Immediately when I see “natural breast” (天乳 – literally heaven/sky breast,) I think of the anti-footbinding movement which created the term “natural feet” (天足 tianzu.) Tianzu is very thoroughly described in Prof. Dorothy Ko’s Cinderella’s Sisters – go read it! The idea of a “natural” body and the association with heaven come from Christian/Western thinking; they are not indigenous to Chinese thought on the body. It is also important to note that the use of ru (乳) instead of xiong (胸) because ru has immediate connections to breast milk and breast-feeding. The changes in perception of the breasts and their function – and the larger changes in the perception of women and their natural roles – are a crucial part of the anti-breast binding fervor in the Republican period. Much of the discourse surrounding women during this period advocates “liberation,” beginning with bodily liberation, but at the same time there is a new belief that women should be educated for the benefit of their (male) children, and thus the future of the Chinese nation. Women’s roles as mothers become a part of the new visions for the Chinese state and along with new beliefs on hygiene and physiology (diseased, unhygienic bodies vs. natural, unrestrained bodies,) this is why there is a new emphasis on the breast and breast feeding.

Furthermore, this is the first time that female bodies are being dissected and discussed in public. In earlier pieces, it is said that women see breasts and exposing one’s breasts as shameful and undignified, although I do not believe that this is an idea perpetuated solely by women. By discussing these issues publicly, the shame is supposed to be lifted but I am apt to think that the shame is only amplified for some women, as was discussed in the article on sports culture and breast binding I read. There is an earlier article in BYHB (published July 30th) about the natural breast movement that I am working on now, so expect more on this issue soon.

However, according to Wan, this – the letters, the “Natural Breast Movement” etc. – isn’t enough because it doesn’t completely resolve the problem, it only attacks and destroys it without “reconstructing the defect,” as she puts it. Wan says that she published her collection of women’s moxiong drawings and her essays because she wants readers to discuss how and why the little shirt should be changed.

Wan writes: The newest style of undergarment (#6 in the “Illustrated History….”) should be made a little more wide and loose so it is good for (only) wrapping around the two breasts (双乳 shuang ru – a pair of breasts) and not for pressing down one’s breasts (压乳 ya ru). Xiong, the earlier word used for breasts, literally translates to chest, a unified thing, while shuang ru refers to a pair of breasts, meaning, two distinct healthy breasts.

Wan continues: Pressing down one’s breasts isn’t hygienic at all and “After you know this reason, whether or not you allow yourself to use the Little Vest (小马甲) or the Moxiong (抹胸) is by no means a problem. There is absolutely no reason to abolish the little shirt in itself because it is nothing more than a piece of clothing, (however) what we all want to bring down isn’t that, it is the act of ‘pressing breasts’ (压乳 ya ru). My opinion is that breasts must still be bound (“束乳”) but can not be pressed down (“压乳”); thus, I please ask my readers to clearly know that to wrap/bind breasts (“束乳”) and to press down breasts (“压乳”) are two different things.”

This is where a very interesting contrast is made. The problem isn’t the little shirt or undergarments, it is how these items are used. There is a difference between binding/restraining/tying breasts (束乳 shu ru – which is how breast binding was referred to before,) covering the breasts, and pressing breasts (压乳 ya ru), meaning, flattening and hurting the breasts, which is what happens during breast binding. After making this argument, Wan asserts that Western women, who attach great importance to hygiene, bind their breasts without pressing them down to become flat, and they do that through the new brassiere. Wan writes, “Recently…they (tamen 她们 – female they) have their 束乳的抹胸 (Shu ru de moxiong – bind breast vest,) which only makes their breasts appropriate and does not obstruct lung breathing, thus this kind of garment we could try to carry out.” The idea of making breasts “appropriate” is fascinating – aren’t breasts supposed to be part of the natural body? What about them is so offensive? I am reminded of the bit in Mao Dun’s Midnight where Old Mr. Wu drops dead of shock from seeing so many lightly exposed breasts in Shanghai. But that character was a parody of old China, so why this continued emphasis on appropriate breasts?

Wan then quotes from Emile Baiard, a celebrated researcher of family and love, who wrote a “famous” book published in 1926 called “人体美班试术,” (The method to identify beautiful/healthy bodies?). Baiard writes, “Regarding two breasts (双乳 shuang ru – a pair of breasts), we need not rely on wrapping them in a piece of cloth in order to stop our inappropriate talk from coming out. We need to say: Inside clothes, all of the body should be independent and free, not at all bound up is no doubt is a kind of fun/pleasure, but to leave the two breasts (on the chest) alone is to make them droop and to not have an item to protect them is to let them not be beautiful. One must know the beauty of attire is not in the body being hard and straight, but in the body being soft/gentle. Breasts are the most tender (脆弱 cuiruo) part of a woman’s (妇人 furen) body, the beauty of her curves all comes from her two breasts.” The rest of the quote from Baiard describes how when breasts/the body are too hard, they cause the beauty of the whole body to collapse. Additionally breasts should be treated in a way that results in aroused interest.

Baiard’s quote is a way to import Western ideas of soft, curvy bodies (womanly bodies, in our minds) as the height of beauty to China and change the loci of sexuality to the “natural” body vs. the unnatural body created by breast-binding (and footbinding). In this view, clothes accentuate natural beauty, they don’t change it.

Wan ends the article by stating again that currently Western women all use a moxiong not to press their breasts and thus damage the beauty of the curves, but to set off by contrast their beauty (把美烘托出来?). Thus, Wan further advocates that Chinese women copy the Western use of moxiong but to change the name to “breast clothing” (乳衣 ru yi). Starting at that moment, Wan will begin to publish six different kinds of Western lingerie so that women (女界 nv jie – women’s world) have references to compare and refer to.

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