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Reasons to be beautiful

December 15, 2010

“Clothes and Body/Health” (衣服和身体)
By: Wu Tian (呜田)
Published in Minguo Ribao (Republican Daily 民国日报 -上海) in the Consciousness (觉悟) #4 insert on January 16, 1921
Signed with postscript: 于东京 (with Tokyo – written from Tokyo?)

Wu begins by telling readers about how he/she (assuming he? Republican Daily was a large newspaper, not directly geared towards women, and mostly written by men?) was walking around on New Year’s (Western) day and saw people of all ages and both sexes wearing new clothes on the street. They all seemed to be consumed with themselves and looked at their own clothes. Wu mentioned that women who were not wearing fashionable clothes feel/felt incredibly embarrassed on the street and that he saw a car splash mud on a person’s clothes, which resulted in the person sobbing.

Wu argues that people place the importance of clothes above food and housing. In fact, these three things are grouped together (衣食住) and clothing is the first word of the three. Human beings used to wear plants and animal skins, now they wear beautiful/damask silk fabric (绮罗.) However, mankind’s love of clothing has gone a step further and now today’s clothing contradicts a person’s health/body. Wu says that when people come into this world, all they have are their internal body (内体) and the goal of clothes is to protect that body. But the development of clothing hasn’t achieved this goal and the internal body (内体) is harmed by being wrapped in clothes and day by day, it becomes weaker and thinner.

According to Wu, the only goal of today’s clothing is to adorn the body. As always, there are two Chinese idioms: 佛要金装, 人要衣装 (fo yao jin zhuang, ren yao yi zhuang) which means “The tailor makes the man” and 只重衣衫不重人 (zhi zhong yishan bu zhong ren) which means (roughly!) “Only clothes are important, people aren’t important.” Wu adds: “If you don’t participate in adornment, you aren’t considered a person.” If a person is wearing clothes, they are considered a person, but if they are nude (裸体) they are considered “禽兽” (qin shou – birds and beast or less than human.) The body is considered ugly and shameful, but those who wrap themselves up in beautiful/damask silk fabric (绮罗) are considered beautiful people by the mass of thick, common people.

Wu then states that people today neglect their inner muscles and this is a huge shame. It is important to develop these muscles and if one wants to develop the internal body, he/she must first peel off today’s heavy and burdensome clothing. Like many other authors who wrote about clothing issues and/or breast-binding, Wu references the Ancient Greeks. Wu writes that the Greeks wrapped just a single piece of cloth around their body and they would let their bodies bathe in sunlight. The naked men revealed their heroic, solemn, and intimidating muscles, while the women exposed their mysterious and bewitching (蛊惑 gu huo – to poison and bewitch) bodies. Wu ends the piece asking people to question the differences between the Greeks, who wore a single piece of cloth and could take it off at any time, and today’s people who are burdened by layer upon layer of binding clothing. Wu believes the Greeks were a much happier people.

Some thoughts:

1. The adjectives used to describe male and female Greek bodies says enough about Wu’s views on gender. Men have heroic and intimidating muscles, while women are mysterious and bewitching. The female body is unknown/foreign and it has the power to “poison and bewitch” (the word Wu uses!) people. There is an implicit danger to the female body.

2. Wu isn’t specifically talking about China here, at least not at the end. When Wu refers to “people,” he isn’t writing Chinese people, he is referring to mankind (ren lei.)

3. I am really interested in this idea that clothing is restrictive and unnatural. Here, Wu is expounding the virtues of the internal body (内体,) free from the chains and burdens of clothing. This conflict is present in other writings on breast-binding and writings on footbinding for that matter. The idea is that breast-binding obstructs the body from developing and destroys the body’s “natural” beauty. I don’t have some larger deep intellectual statement to say about this, I just think it is interesting and important.

4. Wu praises the (Ancient – important to note!) Greeks for their simplicity in dress and their willingness to go naked at any time. This nostalgia for a non-Chinese past is interesting and odd. Ancient Greece was the beginning of Western civilization (or so it was believed at that time) but by the time of Wu’s writing, Greece had been torn apart by internal and external warfare. Do Chinese intellectuals feel a particular kinship with the formerly great Greeks? I think this is totally possible – China has a storied 5,000 year history (as any Chinese person today will tell you!) full of literary and social achievement but by the early 20th century, the country was, in the eyes of young intellectuals, backward and divided.

5. What I find strange is that Wu offers no answers, apart from gushing about the greatness of the Ancient Greeks. As I have talked about before, images of Chinese nudes were practically non-existent in the 1920s, at least in what I have seen thus far. In the 1930s, there is a wave of photographs of athletic women (swimming is a popular theme) and drawings of calendar girls topless or provocatively dressed. There is this constant rallying around the “natural” beauty of the female body. The audience for publications like Minguo Ribao was predominantly urban and relatively well off and would read these declarations about natural female beauty and (possibly?) be more open to them. So why is the Chinese nude non-existent?

6. Of course, there is another huge discrepancy between how female and male bodies are treated. Female bodies are dissected and praised in public but there really is no discussion about natural male beauty. Is the idea that men have already freed their bodies from the chains of clothing? I am not sure if that is true… Or is that the primary audience for these publications is male and they only want to hear about beautiful women? That seems a little too juvenile but, it could contain a grain of truth.

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