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“Policing the Modern Woman in Republican China”

May 12, 2011

Louise Edwards
“Policing the Modern Woman in Republican China”
Modern China, Vol. 26 No. 2 (April 2000): 115-147

“Depending on the commentator’s position on feminist issues, the new woman was either a symbol of the emancipation of women from male oppression of a symbol of the major threats facing family life, public order, and national morality,” (117).

“The new woman was simultaneously the symbol of self-liberation from subordination (her original Euro-American model) and the affirmation of sociomoral values that would reestablish their right to rule (educated individuals possessing high moral principles) in the face of a cruel, commercialized, and corrupt military-dominated GMD government,” (128).

Louise Edwards’ article analyzes male Chinese intellectuals’ preoccupation with the “new woman” (新女性 xin nüxing or 现代妇女 xiandai funü) during the 1920s and 1930s. While the two terms Edwards lists for “new woman” have not shown up too much in my readings, the anxieties and preoccupations of the male intellectuals Edwards describes are very relevant to issues that have come up quite a bit in my work over the past few weeks. Edwards’ thesis is that the debate about the “modern woman” or “new woman” during this period is a result of increased concern and anxiety on the part of male intellectuals about their own influence and connection to power. She writes, “This preoccupation with the moral attributes of the modern woman was an attempt by some reformist intellectuals to reclaim their role as enlightened moral guardians and therefore leading advisers for the nation. Discussions about the policing of the modern Chinese woman, then, were synecdochical discussions about governing a modernizing Chinese population” (115). This is why male intellectuals were quick to criticize women’s schools if they did not offer education about politics or encouraged women to pursue leisure activities. These men frequently reasserted the importance of the race and the state because this is where their interests could be served the most.

She argues that because of the rise of commercial and military power, the intellectual class was further weakened and used its only tool, print media, to grasp at power. As Edwards points out, the actual influence of these male intellectuals was much smaller than their extensive writings would have you believe (121). But in the case of breast binding, there clearly is some relation between this small group of reformist intellectuals writing in publications and government policy. By the late 1920s, there were two bans on breast binding circulating and there was a lively discussion about the dangers of breast binding and the beauty of natural curves/breasts. I have a few articles from the GMD’s official publication for women, Revolutionary Women (革命的妇女 geming de funü) that are further proof of this but they are in my to-blog pile right now!

One of the first points that Edwards brings up about the debate about the modern woman was that male reformers were quick to dismiss the clothing and hairstyles associated with modernity and warned their readers that these did not make a woman modern. A modern women cared about national welfare, the Chinese race, and politics (115-116). Furthermore, male intellectuals also extolled the virtue of doing as one said. Hu Shi, whose proposal for “large breastism” (大奶奶主义 da nai nai zhu yi) I discussed here in my post about Wu Hao’s book, wrote in 1918 that the “fake” new women’s “words don’t match their intentions, what they do is completely at odds with what they say,” (124). This is something that has come up again and again in my research. First remember that Guo Lin’s breast binding ban (which I wrote about here) explicitly labeled breast binding a beauty practice and warned of its effect on children and the race. Guo and others like him argued that modern women were too concerned with personal beauty, especially “man made” beauty, and that they were not truly liberated. As Edwards points out, the late 1920s (which was when Guo’s ban was put forward) was the height of criticism against the exterior manifestations of female modernity (120). Furthermore, like Hu Shi, each writer (like here, here, and here) has pointed out that the women who bind their breasts are the ones who should know better; they are educated and clothed in Western dress. These women shout for liberation and wear Western dress, but they do not really follow their beliefs and they do not behave according to what they say. I have mentioned the move against “fake” or “man-made” beauty and this seems to be an extension of that impulse to destroy whatever is “fake” and “unnatural.”

But what about the voices of these women? How did they define themselves? Throughout the debates on breast binding and the debates featured in Edwards’ article, female voices and the voices of “new women” are missing. Edwards writes that China’s earliest feminist writers, who agitated for equal rights and education for women, never used the term “modern woman” or “new woman” to describe themselves (118). While many urban elite women benefited from access to education – women entered schools in 1898 – and adhered to new “modern” fashions, this does not mean they defined themselves as modern or political. This could be because of the Guomindang’s political crackdown and censorship in the late 1920s and 1930s, which Edwards brings up and I have yet to address in my research. Some women were persecuted, tortured, or worse in the late 1920s for wearing Western dress, a symbol of radical politics (118). But was breast binding “traditional” or “modern”/”Western”? Some anti-breast binding advocates mention that women in China bound their breasts for centuries and it was grouped with footbinding and ear piercing as an evil traditional bodily practice. Urban elite women had natural feet, so they clearly didn’t fully adhere to traditional beauty practices but they did bind their breasts. The prevalent style in the West during the 1920s was the flapper style, a look which called for flattened breasts. Further complicating this issue is sexuality and modesty. The modern woman was frequently portrayed as a sexual woman but breast binding was often for reasons of modesty because protruding breasts were seen as vulgar.

It is also possible that breast binding was an affirmation of commercial modernity and not political modernity, as Edwards calls it. With the rise of commercialism and advertising, many of the politically symbolic Western fashions because commercial commodities (129). Breast binding garments also became a commercial item as they were removed from the realm of women’s personal work (handmade and embroidered objects) to mass-production and department stores. By purchasing these goods and others like them, women held commercial power and they became the focus of advertising. This form of power was looked down on by male intellectuals who saw the rise of business as hollow. Women now had to go out and purchase their undergarments and wielded some form of commercial power through their decisions about which products to use. Perhaps a good example of this power is the introduction of the brassiere. Even though Edwards quotes an article form 1933 by female writer Xu Qingyu that criticizes women for “wearing brassieres that compress the breasts and cause the back to swell abnormally,” (141). However, my research thus far has suggested that women in the 1930s were not quick to adopt the brassiere as their undergarment of choice, even though it was put forward as a Western and modern item. Perhaps Edwards’ has translated something like “little vest” or “little shirt” into brassiere?

From a contemporary Western standpoint, it is easy to think that the anti-breast binding movement could be liberating because it removes a restriction from the body but I think that the anti-breast binding movement just brought more scrutiny to women’s bodies and reinforced gender difference because it sexualized women’s bodies and emphasized the beauty of women’s curves. Women’s bodies became the site of the debate about modernity and the future of the Chinese state/race, without women themselves having any say in the matter. What Edwards article points out is that women and their bodies were always defined in relation to men. Stephen Ching-kiu Chan, quoted by Edwards, argues that male writers controlled the form of the new woman and that these male intellectuals “own dilemma of identity tended to be posited in relation to the alien, repressed, but emerging ‘other’ of the woman in question” (122).* This immediately reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and her argument that woman, in the Western canon, was always created as the dark, unknown “other” with male as the normative gender. In her essay “On the Revenge of Women,” (1907?) Chinese anarcho-feminist author He Zhen makes a similar argument, claiming that the Chinese classics were created and upheld so as to define woman as evil and the other. Although Edwards disagrees with Chan’s argument that the discussion of the modern woman in the 1920s and 1930s stemmed from a male identity crisis, I do agree with Chan (and de Beauvoir and He Zhen’s) argument that the new woman was only defined by and in relation to men and that the anxiety about new women, as seen in the anti-girl’s school sentiment throughout many anti-breast binding articles, came from a personal anxiety on the part of male reformers about their power and status (123). Furthermore, by emphasizing women’s bodies as different and beautiful in their difference, male writers not only added to a sexualized image of the new woman but also reaffirmed gender difference. It is easy for male reformers to critique women for not caring about politics and for breast binding, but society never socialized women to care about national politics or the beauty of curves.

*Quoted on Edwards 122, but originally in Stephen Ching-kiu Chan’s “The language of despair: ideological representations of the new women by May Fourth writers.” Modern Chinese Literature 4 (1988): 19-38.

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