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Breast feeding and nianhua

June 4, 2011

A few weeks ago Rachel, a graduate student at Cambridge who works on women’s robes in the late Qing, sent me this image of a nianhua (New Year prints) featuring a depiction of a woman breast feeding in public. This nianhua is from the Guangxu period (1871-1908) and is originally from the book Yangliuqing Nianhua (Yangliuqing New Year Prints 杨柳青年画) from 1984.


Click the above for a bigger image.

And here is a detail of the woman breast feeding:


What does this all mean? Some ideas:

1. The Guangxu Emperor was part of the Hundred Days Reform and depending on what year this print is from, Rachel suggested that this could be a way of publicizing the importance of breast feeding and promoting the practice at the end of the Qing.

2. This image shows a group of people building haystacks (reminiscent of Bruegel in its own way) and a woman who would inhabit this space would typically be a lower class or more common woman, right? In some of my sources I have read descriptions of lower class and older women whipping out their breasts in public and publicly breast feeding, so this possibly wasn’t that shocking of a sight except that this woman is younger. You can’t see her feet either, which is one easy way to check class status.

3. This could be a fictional/fantastical scene. Women in public! People of all classes mingling together! Toddlers everywhere! The woman in the foreground in front of the breast feeding woman looks to be wealthier by nature of her dress but she is depicted as gathering hay/grain. An aristocratic woman? A courtesan or prostitute perhaps? A woman in the background is dragging a machine that either plows or crushes grain, I can’t tell.


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