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The Pain of Breast-Binding

March 7, 2011

“The Pain of Breast-Binding” (常识: 妇女束胸之害)
By: 张森玉
In [The Meeting of?] New Medicine and Society Journal (新医与社会汇刊)
1928 (1)

This is one of the new, seemingly never used before sources I found in December at the Shanghai Library! It doesn’t say much that is “new” regarding the practice of breast-binding but it does say quite a bit about the perceived medical effects of breast-binding. When it comes to the title of this periodical, I assume that “new medicine” means medicine influenced by the West, eugenics, and the concept of hygiene (卫生 wei sheng), which comes up quite a bit throughout the article.

Zhang begins by telling readers that in the past women had the pain of footbinding but because many female compatriots (女同胞 nü tong bao) called for liberation (解放 jie fang) and “natural foot” (天足 tian zu) societies rose, the practice of footbinding went away. However, Zhang says, the goal of liberation has not been achieved yet because women still practice breast-binding (束胸 shu xiong). Zhang writes that breast-binding begins at the beginning of a woman’s physical development because it is believed that large (隆肿 long zhong, “prosperous and swelling”) breasts were not beautiful. Breast-binding is “to use underwear (内衣 nei yi) to tightly pierce (紧扎 jin zha) breasts flat.” But, Zhang asks, don’t these women know that breast-binding destroys natural beauty? More importantly, breast-binding destroys the body and harms children. The breasts are important because “inside” them are the tools for breathing and circulation (呼吸器 hu ji qi and 循环器 xun huan qi.) The two lungs especially are in charge of breathing and with them the body exhales “the foul smell of charcoal air” (炭气之浊气 tan qi zhi zhuo qi) and breathes in the outer world’s “moral fostering fresh air” (养气之新鲜空气 yang qi zhi xin xian kong qi.) The term 养气 (yang qi,) translated as “to foster moral value (by cultivation or through a moral life)” or “to conserve one’s vital powers (by avoiding conflict with the unchangeable laws of nature,)” is repeatedly used throughout this article but I am not sure how to translate it in this context. It is used in reference to fresh air (vs. the contaminated air of a breast-bound body) and a few words later it is defined as something that is necessary for nourishing the body. Breast-binding prevents fresh air from entering the body but is fresh air tied with moral cultivation? Is a breast-bound body losing vital essence or moral cultivation or both? Zhang intimations are subtle as he only describes the physical effects of breast-binding: short breathing, obstructed blood circulation, tuberculosis, a weakened body, and possibly death.

Furthermore, breasts (两乳 liang ru) are the instruments of excreting milk and are thus necessary for nourishing and raising a child. When a woman breast-binds, she blocks the glands that excrete milk and nourishment (养料 yang liao) for her child. Without her natural breasts, a woman must hire a female servant (女佣 nv yong) and use her milk. If a mother does not conform to the methods of rearing a child (I assume breast feeding?), the child could become weak and if it reaches a certain degree, the child could die. I sense a bit of eugenics here as hiring a wet nurse is seen as something negative which could alter the strength of a child’s body. Zhang says that a high number of Chinese children die every year because of “poor nourishment” and if the evil practice of breast-binding continues to spread, it will influence the fluctuation of the population. Additionally, if women want liberation they must shed the old habit of breast-binding and “wash away the shame of weak woman of the past” (洗昔日柔弱女子之耻 xi xi ri rou ruo zhi chi). Only then can China avoid the many outsiders who are happy to quickly proclaim the image of “the sick man” of East Asia (东亚”病夫” dong ya “bing fu.”) Once again, women are blamed for the lowly place of China in the world and for foreigner’s negative perceptions of China. The link between nationalism and the anti-breast binding movement is undeniable.

My former Lit Hum teacher Asifa (hi!) asked this question and it is definitely one that I have been thinking about quite a bit: How permeable and fluid was the female body in the eyes of reformers? In medical texts? Did it change with the influence of the West? In this article, as in others, damaging or weakening the breasts can lead to other diseases; corroding “natural” breasts spreads decay to the rest of the body. Perhaps it is time to dig into the work of Charlotte Furth and see if it offers any clues. And why is tuberculosis associated with breast-binding? The early 20th century saw its share of tuberculosis panics throughout the world but how did breast-binding become the scapegoat for the disease in China? Any suggestions, readings, or questions are highly appreciated!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Yuan haixiao permalink
    March 18, 2011 9:29 am

    yangqi, it is a ancient word in China, which is being used by Chinese medicine\Daoism\Buddhism, and there are some deep relations among yangqi and The five primary elements and moral character. yangqi is not only a verb but also a noun, and now is almost being replaced by oxygen.(eg:氧气助身康强,炭气极易杀人). The relations between breast-bound and yangqi is very interesting, I think it is a kind of knowledge perhaps produced specially for the breast-bound and breast-natural.

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