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Guo Lin’s Breast Binding Ban

May 8, 2011

There is a lot of overlap between some of the recent materials I have been reading so instead of looking at them individually, I am going to write some posts that are grouped around a theme or event. This one is about Changde County (Hunan Province) School Inspector Guo Lin’s (郭璘) ban on breast-binding. I am trying to find more information about Guo Lin but it is proving frustrating so for now, here are two articles that discuss Guo’s ban in different ways.

“Fujian Education Weekly: (4) in order to respectfully present the school interior affairs office’s order to practically ban girl’s breast-binding…”

(福建教育周刊:(四) 为奉教育内政部令切实查禁女子束胸仰遵照办理由 – Fujian jiaoyu zhou kan: (si) wei feng jiaoyu neizheng bu ling qieshi chajin nüzi shuxiong yang zunzhao ban liyou – clunky bureaucratic language, any insight is greatly appreciated!)

Published in the Fujian Education Weekly (福建教育周刊 Fujian Jiaoyu Zhoukan)
Written by Department Chief Cheng Shikui (程时煃)
1929, pages 52-53.


“Discussing Women’s Breast Binding” (谭谭女子束胸 tan tan nüzi shuxiong)
Published in Temperance Monthly (节制 jiezhi – the magazine itself included the English translation of Temprance Monthly), 1930 9 (1), page 13
By: Fang (芳)
W.C.T.U of China (中华妇女节制协会刊行 – zhonghua funü jiezhi xiehui kanxing – Chinese Women’s Temperance Organization Publication)

These two articles are aimed at completely different audiences and their tones reflect that; the article in the Fujian Education Weekly is loaded down with official and bureaucratic language because it is an official mandate for the Fujian Education Department/Bureau to enforce a new ban on breast binding in women’s schools, as influenced by Guo Lin’s ban in Hunan Province, while the Temperance Monthly article, published by the Women’s China Temperance Union (?), is discussing Guo’s ban to its audience, primarily middle to upper class Chinese women. Since the Fujian publication is the less interesting of the two, I’m going to discuss that first:

The article is publishing a mandate from the Fujian (province) Education Dept/Bureau to every school principal and education official in the province. Then there is a slightly confusing set of lines: the education inner affairs office has started to prepare the executive committee (执行委员会 zhixingweiyuanhui) to prepare a letter. But the next line is: A member of the standing committee (常务委员 changweuweiyuan) sent out to the Hunan (province) party direction committee (党务指导委员会 dangwu zhidao weiyuanhui) a petition to the Changde county school inspector Guo Lin to propose a ban of women’s breast binding that says:

“Recently, without exception the students of women’s schools everywhere see breast binding as beautiful, first to practice and the after effect is that this custom becomes common practice (成风 chengfeng,) although they fully know the harm breast binding does to the development of the body (身体发育 shenti fayu,) however, the environment still tends toward it because [they / girls] are unwilling to be the only different one, the school days are longer and longer and because breasts experience long periods of breast binding, the connection with bearing and rearing children (生男育女 sheng nan yu nü) is very large, its influence is all-reaching, even to the point that it puts the race (民族 minzu) in a weak position, the harm that breast binding causes is many times worse than footbinding and waist binding! So each school’s female faculty are also addicted (染 ran) to this bad habit (陋习 louxi), they darkly provide an example to students; a female school is not only a place of suicide for young people, the faculty, without exception, also indirectly carry knives! The more they attract a class of female students, the more the crimes are increased; the more you build girls schools, the more you make places to kill people, due to this the race is increasingly declining. There isn’t a day where the country’s power doesn’t die [国亡势将无日- “country dies power/influence without day”, perhaps I translated it wrong here?], I earnestly request a general issued order to the whole country, to take seriously a ban [on women’s breast binding,] so that the whole country’s young women do not sink into a weakened state and also so the race’s new life can today rise up healthy and strong.

So the above is a bit confusing – the Fujian provincial school bureau is seemingly mandating their principals and school officials but then it switches to the ban proposed by Guo Lin. After the end of the quote from Guo, the Fujian department chief comments that these are “correct” words and echoes Guo’s assertion that breast binding obstructs health and makes the country weak. He says that school leaders should ban this evil practice and emphasize health/hygiene (卫生 – this term could be translated as either health or hygiene, although I tend to lean towards hygiene as the proper translation.) The article is signed December 1929.

The same text from Guo Lin is quoted in the Temperance Monthly article as well and I am amazed by how much it condemns women’s schools, going so far to call them places of death and suicide. Is Guo rallying against women’s education period or just breast binding? There are times where the line between the two seems to disappear. Right now I am finding it easier to separate my analysis from the text:

1. Peer Pressure
Female students see breast binding as beautiful but more than that, young girls do not want to be the only different girl at their school so they all bind to fit in. It is assumed from Guo’s piece that young women influenced each other to bind but I still have lingering questions about how true this is or if it is only true in the Republican period when girls spent most of the day away from the family at school. I often mention that the critique of girls schools comes from an anxiety about them – unrestrained young women congregating away from the eyes and laws of men, which leads me to…

2. Female Teachers
A chunk of Guo’s text is about how female teachers are also “addicted” to the practice of breast binding and that they are bad influences on their students because they encourage girls to bind. There are no male teachers at these schools and they are led by women, so it is also as if Guo is asserting that only male influence (through something like his ban…) could fix these damaged women and thus, the race. However, I have two lingering questions: First, how do you really tell that a woman is binding? I haven’t seen any photographic proof and it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that women began to show off their curves, so it is possible that in the pursuit of modesty, women wore less form fitting clothes in lieu of binding. Second, if both teachers and students are still binding, can’t we assume that there are still some lingering cultural prejudices against displaying breasts? Guo Lin claims that breast binding is just for beauty but as I have seen time and time again over the course of my reading, there were cultural prejudices against curves and a set of rules for modesty – if these didn’t exist, why would there have been so many articles emphasizing the beauty of curves and the beauty of the human body? By describing breast binding as a beauty practice, Guo subtly puts the blame on women; it is their vanity and their weakness that is bringing down the race.

3. The Race/Nation
Of course this is about the strength of the Chinese race and producing children! There really is nothing in this about the purity or beauty of women and how it is affected by breast binding, the whole text is about how bad this is for the race and how it makes women, their children, and the race weak.

4. “Addicted”
This isn’t the first time that someone has referred to women as “addicted” to breast binding. This term makes it seem as if it is a choice to bind and not culturally mandated, thus shifting the blame on women.


The Temperance Monthly article, “Discussing Women’s Breast Binding,” opens with a discussion of natural beauty. The author, Fang, writes: “Our country’s women, once upon a time they had the evil habits of ear piercing (穿耳 chuan er) and footbinding; at 6-7 years old, when [they are] innocent and artless/simple and unaffected (天真烂漫 tian zhen lan man), [they – mother/grandmother?] use a 8-9 chi piece of cloth to tightly bind a pair of good natural feet…[they] use a needle to break apart a good pair of ears to wear an earring…this kind of dress is not only not beautiful at all, it is also harmful to the development of the body.” Fang continues by saying that with European influence, these two evil practices (恶习 e xi) were wiped out but that breast binding still exists. However, the “evil wind” of breast binding has not risen in unwise and uneducated women, but in female students who have absorbed new culture.

Fang says that the chest (胸) is the most important part of the human body and the development of the whole body depends on the chest. According to Fang, if you tightly bind the chest, the “tip” of the lungs is obstructed and breathing becomes shortened, which can cause disease. If this evil habit (again 恶习 e xi) is continuously passed down, it makes the whole country’s women become “a bag of bones” (骨瘦如柴 gushouruchai) – how can they have the daring and resolution to compete with men?

Then Fang quotes the Guo Lin proposal just as the Fujian Education Weekly did and notes that the People’s/Citizen’s (国民) government has already adopted it and has issued an order for the whole country to carry it out. Fang hopes that through this order, women compatriots/womenfolk (女同胞 nütongbao) can quickly develop their consciousness and he/she hopes that women will not “comply in public but oppose in private” (阳奉阴违 yangfengyinwei) because breast binding harms women for an entire lifetime. Fang ends by saying he/she hopes that female compatriots (the constant use of this term leads me to believe that Fang is writing as a man or from a gender neutral position) will be able to sympathize with these hopes.

Fang’s article brings up a few issues particularly relevant to the kind of publication he or she is writing in:

1. Natural Beauty / “Time of Innocence”
The most striking thing to me about the Temperance Monthly article is the way that “natural beauty” is invoked. I might be making some assumptions here but I associate the temperance movement with Christianity and Fang’s description of the body before binding as “innocent and artless/simple and unaffected (天真烂漫 tian zhen lan man)” evokes a very Christian image of the body. In Christian ideology, the “natural” body is given by God and is thus perfect. The way that Fang described the body as “innocent” and “good” before being defiled by ear piercing and footbinding also brought to mind the way that Eve’s transgression is described in Christianity. The God-given body was perfect before being defiled by beauty regimes and artifice just as humans were pure and simple before Eve deceived God. Also, the idea of a “natural” body did not exist in Chinese thinking (to my knowledge.)

2. Artifice and Beauty
Tied with the previous point is Fang’s argument against artifice / artificial beauty. Not only do breast binding, footbinding, and ear piercing corrupt the body, they are artificial and ugly. Through these practices, the body is molded to become something unnatural/artificial and anything artificial is ugly. This has come up before in my reading with some writers rallying against “man made” beauty. The negative aspects of ear piercing have come up quite a bit lately in my research – what is the deal?

3. “Development”
During my Advanced Readings in Chinese class my senior year of college, my professor often told us to learn these “set phrases,” words that are almost always used together. At this point I can say that a “set phrase” in my research is “development of the body”/”bodily development,” 身体发育 (shenti fayu) or 身体发展 (shenti fazhan). The two have a slightly different meaning and are often used interchangeably, although 身体发育 is used much more frequently. It is all over this article! 身体发展 especially reminds me of the terms used to describe economic development and I have to wonder if the repeated use of these phrases is to make a connection between the development of the body and the development of the nation.

4. Circulation
Another issue that comes up time and time again in these articles against breast binding is the supposed health effects of breast binding, particularly its effect on breathing and blood circulation. Forgive me if this seems hazy, I am still thinking it over but I am beginning to sense that there is a real connection between this circulatory and interrelated image of the body and its functions and a larger vision of society in which the weak or diseased condition of one part of society effects the rest of society and the race.

5. Tuberculosis Anxiety
Something I have yet to delve into but is on my to-do list is tuberculosis. Some articles, like this one, do not refer to it by name but by hinting at disease while others list tuberculosis as one of the worst side effects of breast binding. Why was there so much discussion of tuberculosis? Was the anti-breast binding movement partially inspired by an anxiety about tuberculosis or was tuberculosis just an easy scare tactic to use to persuade women against breast binding?

6. Hidden Body
Fang’s point at the end that he/she hopes that women do not “comply in public but oppose in private” (阳奉阴违 yangfengyinwei) brings up yet again the issue of how exactly you can tell a woman has stopped binding. How did they tell that breast binding had ended? Begun? Wouldn’t modesty and decorum have prevented breast checks the way that feet were checked during the “natural feet” movement (and more so because breasts were newly sexualized, while feet were de-sexualized)? Weren’t there ways of altering the body to look as if you weren’t binding anymore? I also think of a great example in Prof. Dorothy Ko’s book Cinderella’s Sisters in which a Chinese woman hands an anti-footbinding advocate a piece of twisted fried dough and tells him that it is as easy to untwist the fried dough as it is to make her feet return to their “natural” shape. If the effects of breast binding were as bad as these writers say, wouldn’t something similar be true? How can you return a modified body to its “natural” state?

7. Women Who Bind
I just want to point out again that in this article the described breast binding women are not “backward” or uneducated, they are the “new women,” the women who were educated and understood the May 4th / New Culture Movement. These are women with natural feet (so clearly they have been influenced to some degree by this kind of thinking) and (often) bobbed hair.


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