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Breast Binding Problems

May 10, 2011

“Hygiene: Breast Binding Problems” (卫生: 束胸问题)
By: Li Wenrui (李文瑞)
From: New Doctors / New Medicine People (新医人), vol. 1, number 3 (1923)
p. 15-16

Here is an article that I have been chewing over for a few weeks because of a few lines I have had some trouble translating. There are still a few problematic spots but there is enough here that it is worth overlooking. Let’s begin with the first paragraph:

“Liberation, liberation, every day you talk about liberation and that the breasts of female compatriots/womenfolk (女同胞 nütongbao) are not yet liberated. Reform, reform, every day you talk about reform and that women’s breast binding garments/clothes (束胸巾 shuxiong jin) are not yet reformed. Recall that the surge to liberate and reform arose from the New Culture surge (新文化澎湃 xin wenhua pengpai), the fervent shouts of women were heard everywhere. But how could it be that there was absolutely no thought to carry out reform and liberation regarding the personal bodily pain related to the problems of breast binding? It truly makes one bewildered.”

(I just want to note that the particle 耶 (ye) is used throughout this essay. I have this particle as an expression of doubt at the end of a question, like the above line “But how could it be that was absolutely no thought to carry out reform and liberation regarding the personal bodily pain related to the problems of breast binding?”, but if anyone has any insights about this particle I would really appreciate it!)

This piece picks up many of the same themes that I have seen a lot over the past few weeks of reading. First, once again the “new woman” (influenced by the New Culture movement) is called out for her supposed hypocrisy. Li asks, how can these women agitate for liberation and reform when they themselves are still subjecting themselves to the tortures of breast binding? I have begun to wonder if breast binding wasn’t some form of resistance against male intellectuals and public officials. If the majority of women who bound their breasts were coastal, educated, and reform-minded women, then it is too simple to accuse them of ignorance. There has to be another reason there! Breast binding was a marker of class. Perhaps in binding, women could physically mark that they were not defined as mothers only (note: in elite households during the imperial period, the role of wife took precedence over that of mother) or, more likely, show that they could afford to hire servants to breast feed their children for them. Second, the issue of “natural” (自然 ziran) versus “man made” (人工 rengong) beauty comes up again. According to Li, women bind their breasts (双乳 shuang ru – pair of breasts, the terms used to describe breast are always important) because they do not want their breasts to protrude forward and they think breast binding is beautiful. Li says that these women “desire man-made beauty and to change natural beauty.” Third, later in the article Li gives a detailed description of how breast binding hurts the internal organs. One of described results is that the lungs are unable to “exchange vapors” (air). In my previous post I mentioned the importance of both breathing and circulation in all of these anti-breast binding texts and how I think it could be tied to some larger notions about society.

Far more interesting to me is that the breast binding cloth (束胸巾 shuxiong jin) is the center of attention at the beginning of this article. I am fascinated by how these garments became a symbol of the larger practice, like the stories of brothers and husbands destroying the garments as a way to stop the practice in their homes or even in articles like this that call out for garment reform. However, as Prof. Ko pointed out to me, these undergarments never caught the attention of Westerners or Chinese in the same way as lotus slippers/shoes for bound feet. The Republican period undergarments like the little vest or the little shirt were not embroidered and thus were not preserved because they were seen as worthless. Towards the end of the article, Li writes that today’s fashionable women have already changed their breast binding cloth for the “little vest” (小背心 xiao bei xin) but Li says that this isn’t reform at all. According to him, the “little vest” binds the chest and shoulders even more tightly than the breast binding cloth because the little vest has “secret buttons” (密扣 mi kou). “The result is that the little vest much more evil, the old style breast binding garment only binds the two breasts, the little vest cages the chest, the breasts, and the shoulders to the utmost.” The addition of a small row of buttons to these garments could be a sign of new manufacturing practices and technologies? Or a desire for an even flatter chest?

Also of interest to me are the few little snippets the reader gets about the actual practice of breast binding, although I have to wonder how much a man, even a doctor (and we don’t even know whether or not Li is a doctor), would know about what happens far away from their view. Li mentions that breast binding begins at age 14 or 15, when the breasts first begin to develop. This could mean that the practice had a symbolic meaning closer to a young woman getting her first bra in today’s society, which is a symbol of entering womanhood to some, than to a practice like footbinding. Footbinding began so young (age 3-5) and involved the female members of the whole family; it defined a woman’s relationship to her body for her whole life. Li also mentions that the breast binding garment is worn “throughout the day” so can it be assumed that it wasn’t worn at night? And if so, how much damage could it really do to the body?

After spending a lot of time reading these articles from medical magazines and journals from the 1920s and 1930s, I am starting to grow tired of writing about these exaggerated tales of the health problems associated with breast binding. This article, however, has some pretty graphic details:

“Because of breast binding, the nipple (乳头 ru tou) sinks in and contracts, the breast opening (乳孔 ru kong) is pressed down and clogged [the next part is: 迨出阁育麟后内 dai chu ge yu lin hou nei, which I have no clue how to translate]….Besides being unable to breast feed children, thus use every method through nipple’s breast opening…there are some who force female housemaids and those kinds of people to use their mouths…to correct and suck out the oppressed nipple, in every possible way to change and rescue [is?] sick and unusual, one truly can not help but laugh at these so-called instruments…

While there is a part of me that sincerely doubts that the methods described here actually existed, there is something distinctly deviant and gross about a nurse having to suck a clogged nipple out of her employer’s breast. Another scare tactic?

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