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History of Chinese Undergarments, Part 1

February 17, 2011

History of Chinese Undergarments (China Undergarment History – 中国内衣史)
By: Huang Qiang (黄强)
Chapter 6: “Face like a Hibiscus, Breasts like Jade” – Ming and Qing Undergarments (脸似芙蓉胸似玉 – 明清时期的内衣)

This part one of my discussion of this chapter…

Part of why my research related posts have dramatically slowed down over the past two months is that I have been working on collecting sources and reading secondary sources in Chinese on my topic. Between my own laziness (it is a real thing) and the length/dryness of the texts, I have been moving at a snail’s pace. One of the books I have been reading is The History of Chinese Undergarments (Directly translated: Chinese Undergarment History) which was published in 2007. I should first say that it is almost shocking to me how a book about underwear can be so dry and boring! The author, Huang Qiang, has written quite a bit about The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅 Jin Ping Mei) and in the chapter I just finished about Ming and Qing undergarments, that is his primary source for descriptions of underwear in the Ming period. Towards the end of the chapter, Huang argues that paintings and art objects from the period are objective sources (客观 ke guan) of social “flirtatious expressions” (风情 feng qing) and clothing trends. However, Huang says, you can not see naked bodies or bodies only wearing underwear in these pieces and it is only in erotic novels (艳情小说 yan qing xiao shuo, like Plum in the Golden Vase) and erotic art that you can get a glimpse of this. I agree that erotic novels and art should be used as sources but Huang’s reliance on the Jin Ping Mei is one-sided – there is a veritable cornucopia of fascinating Chinese erotic novels out there, like The Carnal Prayer Mat – and his belief that novels are “objective” sources is flawed. Novels are important and valuable but no source is objective. Isn’t that like, the first rule in historical methods courses?

Now on to the real meat of Chapter 6! Huang writes that in “Feudal” (封建 feng jian, a word that wasn’t used until the Communist period and has highly negative connotations within China) China, undergarments were called 亵衣 (xie yi – literally “obscene” clothing, the term came to be used as the name for undergarments) and that they were seen as shameful because of the traditional rites ideology of “存天理, 去人欲 (cun tian li, qu ren yu.)” I translated this phrase and got “To keep the justice of the gods, remove human desire” but I am not sure if that is correct. Rites/etiquette ideology (礼教思想 li jiao si xiang) influenced clothing, etiquette, and customs but in the Ming period this changed with the beginning of capitalism (in the Jiangnan region at least,) the growth of the urban class, and the influence of Japanese piracy. Huang argues that these changes caused women’s clothing to become beautiful and to embody the luxury (奢侈 she chi) of the period. More importantly, along with the “indulgence” (放纵 fang zong) prevalent in society at that time, undergarments began to display more openness (开放 kai fang) and sexual characteristics (性感的特征 xing gan de te zheng.) This all makes sense to me but I do find Huang’s division of Chinese “feudal” history into sexually free and not sexually free simplistic, as is his characterization of traditional values. The reality is that things were not so black and white. While the nei/wai division of the house made women stay inside, the world of the inner chambers (闺房 gui fang) was a woman-only space and there was a vibrant culture within it in which undergarments (or at least the construction of undergarments) were probably regularly discussed, just as lotus slippers or any other kind of clothing were discussed. It is just that men did not have constant access to undergarments or information about it. When I did a final project on Chinese erotic art for Prof. Ko’s Footbinding seminar, I argued that erotic art could be a form of voyeurism into an unknown female domain. I tried to keep that in mind while reading Huang’s book since he quotes frequently from erotic texts (written by men) that describe undergarments. We are only gaining a glimpse at a textual history of undergarments through men; the garments, their construction, and the way they are worn are refracted through men’s eyes, beliefs, and desires which leaves a huge gap in our knowledge of these garments.


Ming Dynasty 比甲 (bi jia,) which was an article of outer clothing, page 95.

Outer clothing differed by class with there being two primary classes of women: women from official families (命妇 ming fu, I believe this name also means women with titles conferred by the emperor,) and common women (一般妇女 yi ban fu nü). Noble women had formal attire (礼服 li fu) and everyday attire (常服 chang fu.) Common women were banned from using gold embroidery and bright red (大红 da hong) and “crow green” (鸦青 ya qing) cloth. The above photo of a bijia is an example of women’s clothing in the Ming period and according to Huang, along with the vest (背子 bei zi,) it was the most important and widespread article of clothing amongst all classes of women. If you remember, there are two breast-binding garments/undergarments with similar names: 小背子 (xiao bei zi) and 小马甲(xiao ma jia.) Undergarments are often referred to as “little” (小) or “interior” (内) versions of outwear like the above examples and other names I have seen for breast-binding garments and undergarments like 小衫 (xiao shan,) 小裤 (xiao ku,) and 小半臂 (xiao ban bi.) I think this could show that undergarments were seen as part of a cohesive whole and were inseparable from their relationship to outer clothing? That undergarments were viewed as just smaller, more personal iterations of outer clothing? Or that undergarments were as essential and important as outer clothing? The 襴裙 (lan qun,) an undergarment which I have seen mentioned in a few of the magazine and periodical articles from the 1920s and 1930s that I have read, is brought up early on in this chapter. Huang says that it was an undergarment used exclusively in Fujian province but that in some art pieces it looks like the described lan qun is actually an outer garment. This seems like it could be another clue at the relationship between outer and inner clothing. It points to undergarments being constructed in the same way, with the same level of attention, detail, and artistry, as visible/outer clothing.

Huang lists these as the important upper body undergarments in the Ming Dynasty: 抹胸 (mo xiong,) 主腰 (zhu yao,) 扣子衫 (kou zi shan,) 里衣 (li yi,) 小袄 (xiao ao,) 薄纩短襦 (bo kuang duan ru,) and 裤腰 (ku yao.) Of these, the moxiong is the most important and they are still used today in Datong, a city in Shanxi province. However, there is some debate about whether or not the moxiong and the zhu yao, the other tight fitting undergarment, are different garments or two names for the same article of clothing. The moxiong exposed the shoulders, arm, and the top of breasts and used either straps or belts to close. Qing author Xu Ke in his book “清稗类钞” (qing bai lei chao) wrote that the moxiong was called both the 抹肚 (mo du) and the 抹腹 (mo fu) and he noted that the moxiong was used to “protect” the breasts from the elements. A few paragraphs later, Huang writes that he believes that the important function of the moxiong is “to cover” (遮 zhe) the chest while the important function of the zhuyao is “to cover” (覆 fu) the waist. Why is there a difference in terminology to describe how the garment covers the body? R.H. van Gulik, a Dutch sinologist of sorts who published (in very small editions) books on Chinese sexuality and erotic art, also mentioned the tight wrapping of the moxiong and said that the moxiong is “a kind of wide fabric or embroidered silk textile that wraps around breasts [乳房 ru fang,] on the level with the underarms down to the navel, the moxiong uses a thin and tough silk fabric [绢带 juan dai] to fasten tight around breasts” (97). All of the above mentions of undergarments say that the garments are tightly wound around the body but the reason given is “to protect” the breasts. What about breast-binding as a beauty and bodily practice? In fact in the whole chapter, there isn’t a single mention of breast binding (束胸)! A few pages later, Huang writes that the purpose of the moxiong was to protect the breasts (from preventing them colliding together? what?) and to stimulate sexuality but again, no mention of breast-binding as a specific practice.


列女传 (lie nü zhuan,) print by Chou/Qiu Yin, on page 99.
This print is from a Ming Dynasty printing of the Han Dynasty period book 列女传 (Biographies of Exemplary Women) by Liu Xiang. The book was a moral guide for women and I definitely want to find out more about why a photo of women getting dressed made it into a moral guide. According to Huang the print is by Qiu Yin (who I know did a large number of erotic paintings) and it shows women undressing and wearing a style of moxiong (抹胸) without straps. Typically this style used elastic to hang to the body. Huang says that this is a more “scientific” (科学 ke xue) way of protecting breasts. Why is it more “scientific”? Does protect mean keeping out the elements? Do these garments bind the breasts at all?


Ming Dynasty moxiong (抹胸), page 97.
This is the other style of moxiong which has straps/ties at the collar, breasts, and shoulder. The number of ties indicates to me that keeping the garment secured (and tight?) was of the utmost importance. It is also really interesting that the Ming, the most “sexually liberated” time period, had very plain undergarments but more on that in the next post.

One of Huang’s goals in this chapter is to assert that Chinese women’s undergarments were sexual objects and that women wore and revealed these garments to seduce and stimulate men. His main source for this is the Jin Ping Mei and he uses the scenes of Pan Jinlian’s attempted seduction of Wu Song and her seduction of Ximen Qing as examples of how women used undergarments to seduce men. Pan Jinlian knew that exposing her undergarments could show her womanly curves (自己女性身体的曲线) and because she knew that when men saw these undergarments they would think of sex. However, Huang also argues that etiquette and traditional ideology made revealing the curves of the body a taboo even between husbands and wives. Thus, a looser category of undergarments emerged called the 衫子 (shan zi) which was layered on top of the moxiong. Thus, even when a woman was dressed down to her undergarments, she was still wearing a loose garment which obscured the shape of her body and her undergarments. Two variations of this style were the “spring sleeve shirt” (春袖衫子 chun xiu shan zi) and the “pearl shirt” (珍珠 衫 zhen zhu shan.) These shirts focused more on fabrics, brocades, and bright colors. In the Qing period, the emphasis on color and fabric switches to the dudou, which was used as a breast-binding garment, but more on that in the next post!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    December 15, 2015 1:00 pm

    Thanks for a great article. I hope you’ll be able to help me with a puzzle I’ve been chasing down for a while. There has to be some sort of mis-translation happening regarding the hezi – the breast wrap from the Tang dynasty, similar to the strapless moxiong you show above. (I neither speak nor read Chinese, so I’m at a distinct disadvantage.) Almost everywhere I find mention of the hezi, it is described as using elastic. However, elastic wasn’t invented until 1820, long after the Tang dynasty. Rubber didn’t even come over to the Eastern Hemisphere until the 1700’s and wasn’t introduced into Asia until the late 1800’s. So the term translated to “elastic” has to be something else. Any idea what it might really be? I have some ideas based on my own direct experiences and research, but I would definitely like to hear your thoughts. Cheers, and thanks for your help!

    • December 15, 2015 9:08 pm

      Hi Beth! Thank you so much for your kind words and insight – I am a few years removed from my research so I have no clue what elastic could really be!

      • Beth permalink
        December 16, 2015 12:46 pm

        Well it was worth a shot. I think this is from one source that was mistranslated, and has been passed on and on to every other online siting. Back to the search, I guess.

        I do historical costuming, and have worn outfits from China, Korea, and Japan. A heavy silk band will stay quite snug and secure around the torso under the arms and over the swell of the chest. It will also cover or shape the breasts very effectively depending on where it’s cinched and belted. I don’t think elastic was part of the picture at all – just the natural attributes of silk and the natural squishiness of the Reubenesque court ladies.

        Thanks for your reply, and all the best!

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