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Chinese Women’s Clothing and Body Revolution, Part 5 Chapter 1 (Part 2)

April 4, 2011

Chinese Women’s Clothing and Body Revolution (中国妇女服饰与身体革命)
By: Wu Hao (吴昊)
Section: “Women’s Liberation Begins with the Breasts” (妇女解放先从乳房开始)


(image from p. 205)

The above is an advertisement from the ABD Company, a Chinese underwear manufacturer, published in the Shanghai edition of Minguo Ribao on July 3, 1925. The ad says that ABD has every style of new undershirts and shorts. Additionally, the text mentions the native goods movement (国货 guo huo) and the fact that these under shirts are the best for long hot days. This ad shows that undergarment products began to take on importance as material goods and that women have economic and larger power as consumers.

In Northern China…

This is part two of two about this chapter. This part focuses on the second half of Part 5, Chapter 1 which includes the reaction to the natural breast movement in Northern China and how women viewed their bodies. The political atmosphere in Northern China was much more conservative than it was in the South and even hair cutting was outlawed (the issue of hair cutting has come up before in materials I have read.) The warlord Chu/Zhu Yupu (褚玉璞,) a warlord in what is now Hebei Province (I think,) banned hair cutting (for women) and wrote a snappy little line: “Without hair, without laws” (无发即无法) meaning of course that once women cut their hair, (his) law (法律) would cease to exist or be valued (198). As Wu Hao (the author) explains, in a place where even hair cutting was considered bad, exposing breasts or not breast-binding was the greatest evil.

According to Wu women, especially women in the north, suffered four great oppressions (四重压迫 si zhong ya po): Imperialism (帝国主义 di guo zhu yi,) Warlordism (军阀 jun fa,) Society (社会 she hui,) and School (学校 xue xiao) (198). Wu says that imperialism lead to occupation and settlement, during which women were often raped and humiliated but I am not quite sure what Wu means by imperialism – Western imperialism into China? Or Chinese imperialism into areas that are now considered part of Mainland China? If she means Chinese imperialism into central and western China, she is forgetting to mention race and ethnicity. I probably will not be able to ever answer the question of whether or not non-Han Chinese women bound their breasts but it is something to consider. For example, Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet, did similar regulations exist regarding breast-binding? I keep finding that I have more questions than answers there days…

The three other oppressions, warlordism, society, and school, are equally complex. Warlordism was the defense of “feudalism” and the ideology of “Three Obediences and Four Virtues for Women” (三从四德 san cong si de,) which meant obeying one’s father before marriage, one’s husband during marriage, and one’s son as a widow, as well as maintaining the virtues of morality (妇德 fu de,) proper speech (妇言 fu yan,) proper/modest manner (妇容 fu rong,) and womanly work (妇功 fu gong.) Society and family, according to Wu, forced marriages on women, stifled women’s freedom and prevented women from receiving “liberal” (开明 kai ming) education. However, as scholars like Susan Mann and Dorothy Ko have pointed out, neither of these things were quite so black and white. Within the inner chambers, women received different forms of education and had their own modes of writing and expression like nu shu (here is a summary of one of Prof. Ko’s presentations on nu shu.) Feudal school, Wu’s fourth oppression, prevented women from cutting their hair and socializing and could even deprive women of liberty and bodily freedom. Wu argues that although many women followed these ideologies and systems, the Republican period publication Women’s Weekly (妇女周报 fu nv zhou bao) showed women rebelling against these oppressions. One article titled “Are those who receive the four oppressions still without consciousness/unaware?” (受四重压迫的人们还不觉悟吗? shou si zhong ya po de ren men hai bu jue wu ma?) urged that women who received these oppressions were unaware of their humanness (201). I have an issue with the continued use of the term “oppression” since in Chinese history things tend to be a lot more complicated than just that. Even in “oppressive” practices women found some modes of empowerment and identity – perhaps breast-binding could be one of these things?

Guangzhou Customs Reform Committee…

Although Northern China was unreceptive to the natural breast movement and the movement against breast-binding, Guangdong and other southern/eastern coastal cities charged forward with their crusade against the practice. Wu notes that in fact, the Guangdong government enforced the natural breast movement so strictly that they often exaggerated how many women were still binding and refusing to “free” their breasts (201). As part of this continued effort to eradicate breast-binding, the Guangzhou Republican government set up a customs reform committee (风俗改革案员会) and published a set of declarations titled “The custom reform weekly” (风俗改革周刊) in the Guangzhou edition of Minguo Ribao shortly thereafter. The committee wrote, “The goal of reform is not only to bring down the tangible influence of warlords and everything reactionary, but in particular to fundamentally root out the roots of breeding reactionary influence, all old thinking, all old practices and superstitions – then thoroughly break bad practices, reform and reconstruct until it is complete” (201).

Custom Reform Committee member Liu Yulun is repeatedly quoted throughout the second half of this chapter. He wrote in an August 1, 1928 article in the Guangzhou edition of Minguo Ribao, “In order to promote the natural breast movement to revolutionary women” (为提倡天乳运动告改革妇女,) that “For a thousand years, this undesirable custom of breast-binding came down generation after generation to those above and those below, habits formed through practice, as if they [women] are in a prison and can not break its power; although last year the Chief of the Provincial Government Zhu ordered to prohibit it, despite this prohibition the binders still do not hesitate to bind” (201). Liu says that breast-binding was a 1,000 year old practice but I still have not figured out if it actually was or not. On the one hand, traditional ideals of beauty (as depicted in Chinese literature and paintings) emphasize a slim, delicate figure but on the other hand, it is hard to find mentions of breast-binding in older texts. By claiming the that practice was 1,000 years old, reformers place breast-binding in the “backward” past and tie it to footbinding, which also supposedly began 1,000 years ago. Health was another reason why Liu rallied against breast-binding, he argued that breast-binding damaged the breasts (and breast glands – 乳腺 ru xian) and women’s bodies and that it also prohibited the creation and secretion of breast milk. According to Liu, breast-binding and the failure of breast milk negatively influenced the Chinese race and the future citizens of the nation (201). The not so hidden implication here is that China has been weak for the past 1,000 years and has continued to be weak because women do not breast feed their children. This line of thinking has to be tied with the belief that in the late 19th/early 20th century China was “humiliated” by the Western powers and that Imperial China was weak and backward. And guess what, this idea still exists today!

In this same series of articles, Liu writes that the “vigorous” women’s liberation movements after the May Fourth movement all failed because those so called “new women” who everyday open their mouth’s about the women’s movement and women’s liberation “still receive the oppression of the narrow and small vest (狭小背心 xia xiao bei xin)…they still have not thought up a method to liberate themselves from this kind of bodily pain, let alone liberate themselves from anything else!” (201). This contradiction is one of the reasons that I find breast-binding so interesting. Even as “new women” received Western educations and argued for rights, they were binding their breasts. Breast-binding was thus not merely a form of traditional oppression but clearly something that resonated with these women in some way. Although male reformers from the Republican period argued that breast-binding was oppressive and against the fight for women’s right, they did so in order to promote structures that were not pro-women either: the family, women as mothers and wives, and the nation. Furthermore, Liu “sincerely” (in Wu’s words) pleaded to revolutionary Chinese women, “From now on the women’s liberation movement must first come from the liberation of the breasts (乳房 ru fang,) first through those who have already been reached, then to make the whole nation’s women all able to restore the natural beauty of their natural breasts. This is not a joke, this is actually necessary work to rescue the people and the race, I believe every revolutionary female compatriot (革命的妇女同胞 ge ming de fu nv tong bao) is definitely able to practice what they preach (身体力行 shen ti li xing)” (201-202). Like, 15% of that sentence is about women’s rights and the other 85% is about the nation and the race.

How Women Felt…

One of the issues I have consistently come up against over the past seven months of research is how to discern what women really felt about breast-binding and their bodies. These sources have been lost and those women are long gone. Wu Hao presents a few interesting perspectives but none really quite get to what I want to know. Lu Zan (陆赞) published the book Varied Opinions on the Women Problem (妇女问题杂谈 fu nv wen ti za tan) in 1929 and elements of the book were re-copied in the Shanghai based periodical Life. The book described four different “case studies” about women and breast-binding:

The first case is that of a female student who, while studying in Shanghai, became soiled by/addicted to (染 ran) the habits of female students and was deeply afraid to show her breasts. Everyday she wore a little vest to tightly bind her chest (胸部 xiong bu.) There were times when she was slightly fat or her waistcoat decreased in size, and then it would unexpectedly split. The practice of breast-binding made her breasts thin and small and after she went abroad to study, she began to hate her small breasts. She wore Western style clothing and her “two peaks” could not rival those of western women, thus she began to use a small enamel jar to cover her breast. But these man-made breasts were very painful and awkward. There was a time when she was at a dance and began to sweat…and she became a laughing stock (笑谈 xiao tan.)

The second case is that of a woman who bound in a similar way to the first example. After getting married her husband saw her breasts, which were like chicken breasts, and he sought to abolish the little vest. The wife was afraid of her peers laughing at her but her husband cut up her little vest. There was some discord between the couple at first but after breaking away from the little vest, the wife’s breasts gradually developed and her body became “husky” (肥壮 fei zhuang.)

The third case is that of another woman who bound her breasts but unlike the other two who suffered social or personal consequences, this woman suffered the worst consequence of all: tuberculosis. Her doctor told her that her chest suffered greatly when she tightly bound her breasts. Because of her illness, her wedding was canceled and a year later she died. Before she died she hatefully burned her little vest.

The last case centers on a female athlete who did not bind her breasts. In fact, she had two large breasts and people jokingly called them the Himalayas but the woman was not ashamed and proclaimed that she wanted to tell them that large breasts were correct. After she got married and had a child, people began to jokingly call her breasts the Pamir Mountains. She would tell them, “Without the Himalayas and the Pamir Mountains, how can you produce the men of great ability for the country?” (202)

Two points:

1. The first story yet again reveals an anxiety about female students. Their habits are bad and they spoil young women but why? Wouldn’t a reformer want young women to be educated? If not for their own benefit, then for the benefit of future generations?

2. In half of these narratives, women are saved by men. Later in the chapter, Wu mentions another article where an older brother destroys his sister’s breast-binding garments and saves her from the pain of the practice. It is men who can see that breast-binding is bad and ugly and only men have the willpower to destroy the garments. I like the use of a little vest as the symbol of breast-binding in these cases, as if destroying it destroys the practice! Couldn’t the wife just buy or make another one? This belief that men must liberate women is seen particularly well in the words of the principal of Harbin #1 Girl’s School, Kong Huanshu. The Harbin school inspection group came to Shanghai in May 1931 to exchange ideas with the Shanghai Commercial Publishing House and the Shanghai school leaders. Kong Huanshu commented that the breast-binding situation in Harbin was not nearly as bad as it was in southern China because of the influence of Russian women. Much more interesting is Kong’s argument that husbands should liberate their wives from the evils of breast-binding like Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. She says, “As a husband, supervise the liberation of your wife’s breasts, you must have the kind of mercy and willpower like Lincoln had liberating the black slaves, you must not not make her liberate” (203). There is a belief that when women group together and are educated, like in girl’s schools, then they fall into horrible practices. Is it because they are far away from men, who seem to be the voice of reason and taste?

And how do we know that schools were encouraging breast-binding?

Yang Shiqu, a member of the Jiangsu Province Women’s Association, taught classes about the liberation of breasts while she was teaching at the Zhejiang Women’s Extension Classes school (镇江妇女补习学校 zhen jiang fu nv bu xi xue xiao). As part of her course, she handed out flyers to her students. These flyers told students:

“A woman’s two breasts are the most important thing for raising children. But a class of women, while in the development of their youth, every day use a “little shirt” (xiao ma gua) to tightly bind their pair of lively breast peaks. The results of this breast-binding are not only to obstruct breathing and limit bodily development, but it is even more related to problems of a woman’s personal breast quality. There are many women who bind their breasts in their youth, the result being that when they rear children their mammary glands are obstructed, their nipple pores have been stopped up by binding. The breast milk within can not flow freely, the breasts expand to the point of pain and they miserably ache without any way out, and what about the child? It’s stomach rumbles with hunger, it is painfully without milk…New women, breasts are from nature (天生成的 tian sheng cheng de,) they are not shameful, we should let these natural things develop, we absolutely should not use other kinds of methods to bind them and hinder their development, liberate, we should liberate women’s bindings, we should start from individually liberating our own breasts, we should strive, we first start from striving to liberate our own breasts” (204).

After Yang gave this pamphlet out to students, her students and other women’s assocation members thought it was funny. The teachers felt that one could not discuss breasts in front of students. Behind her back, they said that she wasn’t human. Chang Shiqu (场石癯) in her book Thoughts on the problem of women’s breast-binding (妇女束胸问题零感 fu nv shu xiong wen ti ling gan) published the words of Yang Shipu, “I was at the county party meeting and there was a female comrade who did not wear the little vest, and many male comrades criticized her endlessly” (204). This led this woman to criticize her so-called revolutionary male comrades as “supporters of feudalism” (封建余孽 feng jian yu nie) but her criticism didn’t stop there, “Today’s so-called leaders of women’s liberation are also still satisfied with mystical/mysterious ideas, their ideas are completely without liberation, I of course have nothing to say, and I must then muddle through things” (205). After this, she stopped handing out her pamphlets.

Conclusion

While outside of a few mentions of the oppressions of breast-binding, Wu kept a semi-neutral tone throughout the chapter up through that point but she finally wins me over by considering the pressures faced by women during this period. Wu says that the issue of breast-binding is more difficult than footbinding [note: not sure if I agree with that!] because women had to overcome a thousand years of etiquette as well as the feelings of shame and the prejudices of other people. Wu argues, and I agree, that it must taken a lot of courage to face. But why is it harder? Did breast-binding permanently alter the body in way that was much more drastic than footbinding? Or was it that breast-binding didn’t change the body that made it harder to stop? Even women with natural breasts dressed in ways that made them look flat chested, so how could one ever really tell if a woman had stopped breast-binding?

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