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Breast Hygiene

December 5, 2010

“Breast Hygiene” (乳部的卫生)
Linglong (玲珑) 82 (1933,) page 62-63

(In the section labeled “Common Sense” – 常识)

“Our country’s women’s bad habit/evil practice (恶习 e xi) is breast-binding (束胸 shu xiong) and (I disdain) wear(ing) the little vest (小马甲 xiaomajia) to make breasts (奶部 nai bu) flat (平坦 ping tan) or to believe flourishing, high and erect breasts are not refined and are the behavior of trollops/women of loose morals (荡妇 dang fu). In reality, this is a huge lie and one must know that it does not conform with physiology (生理). Not only can breasts not develop, but the nipple (乳头 ru tou) lapses into itself and children can not easily suck [on the breast.]”
[quote from this article]

This article opens with the assertion that breasts (女子的乳) and menstruation are what make women women. The movement against breast-binding ties in with the emergence of a biological female sex. While I am not well read enough on the subject to speak at length about this but from my impressions of medical history in China it seems that the idea of a biological woman did not really exist until the early 20th century? What I mean by this is that what made a woman a woman was not biological function but social function and appearance (footbinding as a gender marker? possibly?) Women remained in the inner chambers, they represented certain virtues, and they played specific economic roles, like producing cloth for the household. I think again (always!) of the Li Yu story “A Male Mencius Mother,” in which the young male lover of a scholar castrates himself and becomes the “wife” of his older male lover. To complete his transformation, he stays within the home and binds his feet.

The article continues by stating that breasts (乳房) are directly related to one’s health, just as menstruation is, and it is important to discuss the breasts before and after marriage because while one’s breasts are developing it is incredibly easy for diseases like tuberculosis (结核 jie he) or “festering” (溃烂 kui lan) to emerge. “Breast development” is emphasized over and over again in these sources and it creates an implicit link with national development, although fada (breast development) and fazhan (economic/political/societal development) are two different terms in Chinese.

Diseases are common for women who bind but the worst possible outcome is to “forfeit” one’s life. Once again, the argument against breast-binding is that women are giving up their lives and their naturally beautiful/healthy bodies in the pursuit of a beauty ideal that isn’t actually beautiful. Health, not beauty, is what comes first, especially when a woman’s health has a direct connection to the health and future of the nation through her children. The article ends by saying that the descriptions of breast hygiene are intimately connected with both unmarried and married women. The author wishes that this article will make sisters (姐妹 jie mei) pay more attention to their breast hygiene in order to benefit health and children’s well being.

By emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding, this article only furthers the idea that breast-binding is not only hurting women but hurting the entire nation. All of an infant’s nourishment comes from breast milk (乳汁 ru zhi) and if the mother’s breasts suffer from diseases, then her breast milk will have poisonous liquid (I think that is what it says? 毒汁 du zhi) and she won’t be able to breast feed (哺育 bu yu). The powerful (?) will have to employ a wet nurse (乳母 ru mu), use cow milk, or dried milk.

This is one of the first times that I have seen wet nurses brought up and it is a super, super important part of my research that I have only just begun to look into! This article lists a number of reasons against wet nurses. First, wet nurses not only effect the economy of the family (小家庭 xiao jiating). The author uses xiao jiating, a term that exists against the traditional Chinese family. The “little family” would just include a husband, a wife, and their children; the “little family” is similar to the Euro-American nuclear family. Traditional families, on the other hand, were (often wrongly) perceived as large and cumbersome because of the inclusion of grandparents, brothers/sisters (aunts/uncles,) and concubines. A really great illustration of the extended Chinese family/Chinese family politics can be found in Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, a super insightful and engaging read.

It is VERY important that this article uses “little family.” I have been reading some secondary sources on wet nurses in Early and Late Imperial China (an article by Jen-Der Lee called “Wet Nurses in Early Imperial China” and an article by Hsiung Peng-chen entitled “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,”) which I will talk about more at a later date but the traditional place of wet nurses within a family is in direct contradiction to the very idea of the “little family.” Wet nurses were often chosen from household slaves or commoner women in the surrounding area and due to their close ties with the child – Lee describes a Han Dynasty story in which a daughter brought her wet nurse with her to her husband’s home – they would often become a part of the family in some way. They became privy to information (and family resources) that only family members could access and they often advanced themselves and their families through their ties to a wealthier, more prestigious family. It is this hazy position within the family that makes them so suspect and even though this article doesn’t mention it, I do think that that is a huge part of the turn against wet nurses in early 20th century China.

This article also argues that wet nurses can endanger the child’s health because generally wet nurses’ diets aren’t “self-sufficient” and the strength of the nourishment they provide is insufficient. Of course this is classist but it also ties in with eugenics. Eugenics was a wildly popular and widely believed field/theory in Republican China (Margaret Sanger’s visit to China in the 1920s (?) was a big hit.) The idea that common/poor people were less healthy and less advanced than the upper, educated classes was prevalent. Thus, it only makes sense that “lower” women’s breast milk was no longer seen as acceptable for educated, upper crust children.

In this article, the onus of responsibility for breast health is on women. If, before marriage, a woman does not know how to protect (保护 bao hu) her breasts it can not only (negatively) influence her health but it can also bring weakness in having children. That part was a little unclear to me and I wasn’t sure how to translate it as the meaning could be that a woman who binds her breasts could have a hard time having children or that a woman who binds her breasts breeds weak children. Here is the original Chinese: 并且一个女子, 未嫁前而不知保护乳部那么将来非但足以影响自己的健康,也足致生育儿女的衰弱. The term feeble or weak (shuai ruo 衰弱) is contrasted with “able-bodied” (强壮 qiang zhuang). Earlier, the author stated that even able-bodied strong women have developed breast illnesses from breast-binding. No one is immune!

A few things strike me about this argument for learning about breast health before marriage. This is obviously tied with the fact that once a woman was married, she would begin to have children, but I think it is also related to the woman’s movement into a new family. Although this practice was becoming less severe during the Republican period, once a woman married she was no longer tied to her own family and she became a member of her husband’s family. This meant that she would lose her physical proximity to her mother(s), aunts, and sisters, who would most likely be her teachers in matters of bodily health and practice. Although a woman would gain new female relatives, it would not be the same. Thus it is really interesting that magazines like Ling Long inserted themselves into the role of teacher by instructing women on how to treat and view their bodies.

After the quote at the beginning of this post, the article tells women that they must pay attention the cleanliness of their breasts and ensure that they are sanitary by washing them often. Otherwise the waste material within the breasts will build up and to drain them can not be pleasant (畅快 chang kuai) and the breast filaments (乳线 ru xian??) call all easily get dirty and clogged. In the future, this makes children’s suckling laborious and if breasts accumulate too much waste material, it can make one suffer lung disease. To avoid this, one should avoid eating fat (which makes breasts full of substance). Not only can binding one’s breasts cause lung disease but letting them grow too full and full of waste material (unused milk? what does this even mean?) can also cause lung disease.

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