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History of Chinese Undergarments, Part 2

February 22, 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 is part two of my discussion of this chapter…

Part one of my discussion of this chapter focused on the Ming period, while this part focuses on the Qing period with some Ming material. I tried to organize this as best I could but Huang’s text is a bit unorganized itself and he repeats a lot of the same points over and over (and over) again.

Huang argues that while the “chaos” (紊乱 wen luan) of the Ming period, especially in the realm of clothing, contributed to changes in undergarments, the Qing period was much more conservative not only in clothing but in social mores. Huang argues that traditional thought “imprisoned” (禁锢 jin gu) people’s thoughts like caged wild animals because of the conflict between natural urges brought on by the sight of undergarments and the traditional teachings official sons were taught.

Huang believes that there are four characteristics of Ming undergarments:
1. They were tight on the body and form-fitting. How a garment fit the body (合身 he shen) was important because the purpose of undergarments was to display the curvaceous/graceful curves of women (婀娜 e nuo).
2. While Ming outer clothing was wide, loose, and dignified (威严 wei yan) in order to show rank, undergarments, especially female undergarments used thin materials (薄透 bo tou) to secretly express beauty and sexuality.
3. Women leaned toward vividly colored undergarments. [I have to wonder if this extends through all classes? What about the availability and cost of dyes and differences in technologies over the course of the Qing period?]
4. Some undergarments were luxurious and indulged in sensory aspects, but there were also non-luxuriant and frugal kinds of undergarments as well. (116)

However, in the Qing Dynasty undergarments lacked the variety of the Ming and they did not cultivate sexuality the way Ming undergarments did. In the Jiaqing period (reign of Emperor Reizong, 1796-1820), undergarments were very similar in construction to those in the Ming Dynasty, but there was an added emphasis on borders and embroidery/decoration techniques and skills. These decorative elements held more meaning and required additional labor. This kind of labor was referred to as 工艺 (gong yi), craft or workmanship. The goal was to embody “触景生情” (chu jing sheng qing), “the sight strikes a chord in one’s heart.” Embroidery and needlework required a certain harmony, blending of color, and skill, just like any other art. Huang says that women used different combinations to reach different effects of “塑身修形” (su shen xiu xing,) “to model the body to embellish appearance” which is a point I will discuss more further down in the post (118). However, Huang also argues that Qing women lacked Ming women’s boldness in pursuing love and flirtation; they did not use underwear to tempt men or as a weapon in the “game of love.” This seems contrary to the trend of increasingly decorative undergarments. While I of course understand and believe in the power fashion and self-decoration for one’s own pleasure and for display to other women, but was that the only reason? Why did undergarments become more elaborate as they seemingly ceased to be seen?

He argues that these tendencies are seen in one of his primary sources on Qing undergarments, the novel Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦 hong lou meng). It includes mentions of a light green 院绸小袄 (yuan chou xiao ao – courtyard silk little jacket), red silk 小袄子 (xiao ao zi - little jacket), and bright red cotton gauze and silk (大袄子 da ao zi – large jacket). Huang notes that within the novel these garments are not a challenge to men or form of sexual flirtation but rather a form of competition for face and personal dignity (118). Does Huang mean a competition amongst women/female family members? This would add an interesting note to undergarments – they were a way for women to display talent and beauty or something like that? As in the Ming Dynasty, Huang’s text suggests that the line between outer and inner clothing was blurred during the Qing Dynasty. The beixin (vest 背心) was worn as a cover for outerwear in this period but later on it became known as a kind of undergarment and the references to undergarments that Huang points to in the Dream of the Red Chamber also describe garments that are called by a diminutive form of the name of a piece of outer clothing.

The primary upper body undergarments of the Qing Dynasty were the dudou (肚兜), which has been discussed at length in my earlier posts, and the moxiong, which was still used in this period. The shape of these garments were similar: a diamond shape with ties around the neck and back. Wealthy women used a metal chain to tie it around them and poor women used red silk rope (111). As with the zhuyao and the moxiong in the Ming period, there is some debate about whether or not the dudou and the moxiong are the same garment under a different name. Huang says they are two different garments: the moxiong emphasized the breasts and the dudou emphasized the stomach. But what does that mean when these garments are both later criticized as evil breast-binding devices? Were these terms interchangeable or used by different classes and regions to describe the same garment? There is no definitive answer so it seems that the best strategy is to trace the parallel histories of both comments and see if they intersect. My personal theory is that they are two different names to describe a very similar upper undergarment and that their use varies by region, class, and time period.

Huang writes that people handed down “the aspect of color,” which is an idea that interests me. Something I still want to figure out was how much these garments were discussed amongst women and how women personally related to these garments. Was breast-binding a practice passed down from mother and grandmother to daughter? Amongst wives or sisters or friends? Or was it a personal practice? In footbinding, the color and shape of a pair of shoes were incredibly important. I am thinking in particular of the satirical novel The Three-Inch Golden Lotus by Feng Jicai which discusses at length how different color, layer, and shape combinations produce certain (desired) effects and that this knowledge was held by a female member of the household (a servant if I remember correctly.)

These issues are also something that I think could be related to the decoration and embroidery of undergarments. As stated previously, embroidery became an important part Qing Dynasty undergarments, in particular the dudou. As Francesca Bray writes in her book Technology and Gender (highly recommended and deserving of its own discussion post) female labor was not only an essential part of the household economy but a woman’s skill with a needle was a reflection of her own value, virtues, and talent. Even in wealthy homes, embroidery was a hobby for women. Embroidery patterns had a meaning, most often related to “happiness and longevity” (福寿 fu shou) and/or “best wishes” (祝福 zhu fu). There were a few different varieties of embroidery patterns each with their own meaning:

三多之相 (san duo zhi xiang) dudou embroidery style. This symmetrical pattern featured pomegranates (佛手 fo shou) and fish to express the luck of “多子, 多福, 有余” (duo zi, duo fu, you yu – literally “more sons, more luck, more surplus”). (113).

L to R: 麒麟送子 (qi lin song zi,) 连生贵子 (lian sheng gui zi,) and 三元及第 (san yuan ji di) dudou embroidery styles (114).

麒麟送子 (qi lin song zi): This piece is in the typical shape of a dudou with embroidery of a qilin (麒麟), a Chinese dog/dragon/horned mythical animal, and a small boy. The meaning was for a qilin to “give” sons to the woman.

连生贵子 (lian sheng gui zi): This style has loops at the neck/shoulder to tie the garment to the woman. The top has embroidery of “连生贵子” – “to accrue sons” and the bottom has flower embroidery.

三元及第 (san yuan ji di): This style features magpies (喜鹊 xi que), which have an auspicious meaning and are “full of wit and humor” (妙趣横生) (??). It has magpies above and below to show “同量不同形” (tong liang bu tong xing – same measure but not the same image) which was meant to bring change? The meaning of this style of embroidery is tied with passing the Imperial Examination (及第 ji di).

L to R: 蝶花恋 (die hua lian,) 河塘鸳鸯 (he tang yuan yang,) and 如意人生 (ru yi ren sheng) dudou embroidery styles (115).

蝶花恋 (die hua lian): “Butterflies, flowers, and love,” this style emerged in the late Qing and used “roll” techniques (滚 gun), although I am a bit confused what that is exactly. The embroidery was meant to bring praise to the woman, although that does not make sense in this case since underwear was not seen in public (right?) and Huang claims that this style has a “high artistic value.”

河塘鸳鸯 (he tang yuan yang): “River and lake Mandarin ducks,” this particular piece has tassels (穗 sui) which is rare for a dudou. Mandarin ducks which are always presented in a pair are a symbol of long-lasting love.

如意人生 (ru yi ren sheng): “Life according to one’s wishes” (?), Huang argues that either this type affirms that underwear is proof (“witness/testimony” 见证) of the games of the boudoir/inner chambers or that underwear was a reflection of the important wishes of people.

L to R: 狮子戏球 (shi zi xi qiu) and 长命富贵 (chang ming fu gui) dudou embroidery styles (119).

狮子戏球 (shi zi xi qiu): “Lion plays with ball,” according to Huang this style combines embroidery work/skill (绣工 xiu gong) and solid/3-D sewing (立体缀 li ti zhui). Some women inlaid the piece with silver colored velvet to show luxury.
长命富贵 (chang ming fu gui): “Long life and wealth and social position” – it was believed that if you wanted long life and wealth/social position, you needed to wear this style of dudou and embroidery.


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