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Why Bind Your Breasts?

December 6, 2010

“Why (Want/Need) to Bind Breasts?” (为什么要缚乳?)
By: Wu Ming (吴明)
Published in Minguo Ribao (民国日报,) April 15, 1920 page 14

Wu begins by saying that (he? she?) reads “you all” discuss every kind of problem in Consciousness (觉悟 jue wu – another Republican period publication?) but now Wu would like to bring up a problem. The problem of tight/to cut (?) clothes/fashions/(in vogue?) (剪髦 jian mao) is more critical. This problem, according to Wu, is the problem of binding breasts (缚乳 fu ru.)

Originally, Wu saw many female students who always wore the “bei tuo“(背驼 which literally means “shoulder camel”) but he/she did not know why they wore these garments. Afterwards, Wu heard a “办偏枯” (ban pian ku ???) teacher that too many of his/her school’s female students suffer from lung illness, but Wu still did not know why until he/she read an article in an article in a Hunan newspaper which said:

“There are women who after graduating school, with the exception of the year they get married, have children every year, however because they too urgently bind their breasts on the weekdays [not sure why weekdays is said here instead of every day,] their breasts (两乳 liang ru) are completely eliminated and their breast opening (乳孔 ru kong another word for nipple?) are also out of the way/obstructed, which means that breast milk (母乳 mu ru) splashes and can’t get out.”

When Wu read this piece, he/she associated it with what he/she saw earlier and it caused him/her [I WILL ASSUME HE – most writers were male and when articles were written by women it was often introduced as such] to have a deep provocation which still remains with him and made him want to write this article. Thus far, this is all very consistent with just about every other article about breast-binding. However, I do think it is interesting that this one implicitly hints at the opening/exposure of the women’s sphere. In no other time would a public discussion of women’s clothing/undergarments and bodily functions occur. Also, Wu’s critique is towards female students. While female students did bind their breasts (and any woman who was of a high enough class to go to school would have bound,) it is definitely interesting that the focus comes again and again on young women. Did older women eventually stop binding? Did binding become more intense among the younger generations when footbinding disappeared? Was it the influence of flapper culture? Did it even really change from how women bound during the Qing Dynasty or was there anxiety about the emergence and place of an educated, “modern” female populace? I think the last bit might actually be true since women who bound were perceived as “backward” and holding back the nation, while also becoming educated and moving away from cultural norms. On the one hand, during this period you see this emphasis on breaking away from traditional culture through education, love matches, and unrestrained, hygienic and healthy bodies, while on the other hand there is still an anxiety about the place and function of women within society with an overwhelming emphasis on women’s roles as wives and mothers.

Wu continues by arguing that breast binding is simply mankind committing suicide. Wu asserts that the practice is only popular in a class of “new women,” which is interesting because breast-binding had existed for centuries before the emergence of the “new woman” in the early 20th century. Why isn’t Wu concerned with the origins and history of this practice like so many other anti-breast binding advocates? Wu also says that he thinks the term “new woman” is inappropriate because breast-binding is popular amongst prostitutes, concubines, young ladies, and female students, who are all (她们 ta men, which is a (at this time) new female pronoun) very novel and thus it doesn’t make sense to add “new” to their distinction. Breast-binding is once again thrown onto the most despised people in society (concubines, prostitutes) and young women, which I think further proves my point above about anti-breast binding movements being a symbol of anxiety against the place of women in society. In Wu’s thinking, there is no way that older women and mothers can further this practice, which is totally ridiculous!

At this point in the article, Wu begins to discuss the health dangers associated with breast-binding. First, he says that breasts (乳 ru) are in front of the chest (胸 xiong) and behind chest are the lungs. While ru and xiong were interchangeable terms for breasts and chest prior to this point, it is interesting that now they have become two distinct parts of the body with different characteristics and hygiene needs. Wu contends that if breasts are pressed down, the lungs can not naturally breathe. This argument is made over and over and OVER again but does it actually hold any truth? In my own experience, my breathing is more restricted by tight clothing around my mid-section, not my breasts, so why are these same arguments being circulated over and over again?

Wu further explains that if the lung’s interior is “dark and festering” (炭养, literally coal festering/to grow) then waste material can’t get out and fresh air can’t come in, which means that all of the waste material circulates in the blood and piles up in the lungs. Wu wonders: How can people still be healthy like this? How do their lungs not develop illnesses? How can the human race not be weak under these conditions? This part gets confusing: Wu argues that zoology has taught humans that they should break away from the animal world, in which animals suckle their young. But, as luck would have it, there is still a group of people without this knowledge and (it seems like this is what Wu is saying) these are the people that are hired by the wealthy to breast-feed their children. However, do you want your children being raised by a woman found by the lower classes? When one hires a wet nurse, she is often an uneducated woman and one can not know if the woman has tuberculosis, venereal diseases, or any other kind of illness that could be transmitted to the child through breast milk. Wu argues that this endangers the child’s health.

The last section of the article involves Wu questioning these “new women” about why they bind. He states that although he isn’t an expert in physiology, his simple reasons for opposing breast binding still make him tremble. He asks (these are approximate translations and FAR FROM PERFECT):

1. Why do you not allow your good body to develop? You surely do not want/need to ruin it so that it becomes a kind of deformity/abnormality?
2. What beauty? What kind of beauty does the unnatural have? Why would a person willingly ruin one’s body in order for another person to see it as beautiful? Is it to so one can be the plaything of the household?
3. Why do those students study physiology all day and all night? For what use are doing gymnastics and dancing all day? Shouldn’t one use one’s life to study to do something? Does studying cosmetics hold anything outside of novelty adornments?
4. There are people who talk about revolution, I want to ask them, on the one hand the complete liberation of the relationship between the two sexes makes you have enough freedom, while on the other hand you tightly bind your body for beauty. Why is this? Why this contradiction? Is it possible that to want to ruin the body in order to reach other people’s so-called beauty ideals changes [your] freedom/liberty?

Wu ends by saying that he still has a feeling that if he entered a female school he would see plenty of students with 8″ long vests with 10 buttons but shoulders that are only 4″ wide. I think he is referring to breast-binding garments here and noting that the vests would wrap around twice? At the end of the day, I still REALLY want to know what the actual effects of breast-binding were on women. Unlike footbinding, where plenty of photographs of exposed bound feet were circulated, there are no photographs of the effects of breast-binding on the body. Are breasts too obscene/low class to expose? Did women who could be swayed to expose due to poverty not have bound breasts? Or were there really no effects of the practice? And how early did women start binding their breasts? I’m not sure if contemporary women who flatten their chests would be a good parallel or not?

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