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China’s Disappearing Clothing

June 4, 2011

China’s Disappearing Clothing (中国消失的服饰)
By: Wu Xin (吳欣)
Chapter 4: Red sleeve skirt: continuously changing women’s clothes (红袖裙裳:不断变化中的女子服饰)
Underwear “Moxiong” (内衣 ”抹胸”)
Pages 100-107


Song Dynasty moxiong

Thus far I have only read through Wu Xin’s short piece on undergarments which is interesting in that it looks at undergarments from the pre-Qin through the present. However this book brings up a larger issue I have with Chinese scholarship. While some of the information presented within China’s Disappearing Clothing is very similar to the information and quotes in Huang Qiang’s book about the history of undergarments (part one here and part two here), there are absolutely no citations anywhere. With the exception of direct quotes, which are cited by book title but not page numbers, I have no clue where any of this information comes from or if it is all Wu Xin’s original work!

Wu says many of the same things Huang said about undergarments: they were called “亵衣” (xie yi), literally meaning “obscene clothing” but just used to refer to undergarments and this title shows how the garments were perceived within Chinese culture (100), the garments had dozens and dozens of names over time, and the embroidery on undergarments was not only used to display women’s talents but also to express lucky meanings. However, on the whole I find Wu’s section to be more interesting than Huang’s. Perhaps this is because throughout her seven pages, Wu constantly reaffirms the value of undergarments as symbols and objects. She writes that these garments show what women valued and what was considered beautiful. Furthermore, undergarments were “a secret balcony to seek the personalized extraordinary splendor of art” (101). If, Wu writes, outer clothing expresses “political tendentiousness” (政治倾向性 zhengzhi qingxiangxing) then undergarments show feeling. In the development of Chinese clothing, undergarments not only have sexual and time period qualities but, compared with other kinds of clothing, undergarments are more free, more wise, and more emotional (101). Undergarments are an ancient woman’s “secret whisper” and they also reflected each dynasty’s culture and ideology (101-102).

She begins by quoting from the Book of Rites story about Li Kangzi’s mother’s death. Li Kangzi’s mother died and he put out her clothes and Jiang wrote that this was improper. Wu Xin argues that this shows that undergarments were put in the coffin with the corpse and that they were not often seen in public, meaning that they were at the same time both incredibly important and immensely private objects. Another early example of undergarments is during the Spring & Autumn and Warring States periods. It is said – Wu never says by who – that women in the Imperial Palace wanted to restrict their waists to create a small figure, so they had the story of “楚王好细腰” (chu wang hao xi yao) (101). I’m a little unclear about this, any thoughts?

Looking over Wu’s short piece, there are dozens of names of undergarments. When Wu Xin uses “nei yi” (内衣) or “undergarments,” is she just exclusively referring to upper body undergarments? She doesn’t make any distinctions so I will assume she is just referring to upper body garments as that is the bulk of what she talks about. It seems easier to break things down by period:

ShangZhou period (which could roughly refer to the period between 1700-256 BCE):
zeThe Book of Songs says that undergarments were referred to as “ze” during the Shang-Zhou period.

Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE):
Zhengxuan says that undergarments were also called: 汗衣 hanyi and 汗衫 hanshan. But Wu refers to Han undergarments specifically as the 帕腹 pafu, the 抱腹 baofu, and the 心衣 xinyi, based on a quote from Liu Xi’s “释名 释衣服” (shi yi shi yifu). The 帕腹 pafu was a horizontal garment that wrapped around the body, the 抱腹 baofu added belts and ties to the pafu and it hugged the abdomen, and the 心衣 xinyi had shoulders and sleeves. All of these garments had a front piece with embroidery and no back piece (102). During the Han, the name 袜 mo was also used for undergarments.

Tang Dynasty (618-907CE):
The Tang Dynasty was a relatively “free” period and this, of course, led to changes in clothing. First, the jacket (襦 ru) became the double-breasted jacket (对襟 duijin). The duijin was relatively looser and more open; it didn’t need buttons or ties. Thus, undergarments emerged without ties or belts. A name for this kind of garment was the 诃子 hezi and it was made out of stiff and slightly elastic fabric. According to Wu, Tang women wore “half exposed chest style dress” – the dress would go up to the border of the chest with a wide belt worn below the chest and the shoulders exposed. Over this a transparent fabric was draped over, like today’s “underwear as outerwear” (103-104).

Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE):
In the Song Dynasty, the 抹胸 moxiong and 抹肚 modu emerge. The character for mo changed from 袜 to 抹. Other names for these garments include: 抹腹 mofu, 肚兜 dudou, 陌袚 mofu, 帕腹 pafu, 抱腹 baofu, 袖梭 xiusuo, and 福腹 fufu. Wu argues that all of these names come from the Chinese proclivity to name things at their own will and from the wide area (chest, shoulders, waist) that these garments covered (102).

Most importantly, Wu says that breast binding began in the Song Dynasty (104). This is the same period that footbinding (supposedly) began as well but what proves that breast binding began during the Song? Is this just an assumption because of the relationship between these two kinds of binding? Or is it assumed that breast binding began during the Song because this was a relatively conservative (Neo-Confucian) Han dominated period? During the Tang, the ideal woman was voluptuous but this ideal ended with the Tang and the “traditional” delicate beauty was re-affirmed. Or something like that?

The moxiong and the modu covered the whole chest and stomach. A saying associated with the moxiong was “Above it can cover the breasts, below it can cover the stomach” (104). These garments could use buttons or ties and the material changed based on class; ordinary people used cotton and aristocrats used embroidered silk (104).

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE):
The Yuan Dynasty brought the influence of Mongolian culture to Han clothing. Women wore more fur and leather. The undergarments of this period were called 合欢襟 hehuanjin and it had a tie that went from front to back. This garment used either buttons or a rope belt to close and had embroidery around all sides of it (104-105).

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE):
Wu doesn’t offer that much more on the Ming than Huang did, so there is no need to spend too much time on this period but Wu does make the distinction that during the Ming, when “debauchery was the trend,” undergarments were a way to show beauty and the body. Women used undergarments to alter their bodies, like making their waists smaller etc. (105).

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE):
The 肚兜 dudou emerges in the Qing Dynasty as the primary undergarment for women. Embroidery becomes much more important in the Qing Dynasty and cotton wadding is used for warmth (105).

But here is something that is interesting to me and makes me question how much undergarments actually changed over the course of Chinese history. Wu previously mentioned that the moxiong was called the dudou during the Song Dynasty and here she mentions that the moxiong became the dudou during the Qing Dynasty. Then how much did undergarments actually change? The photo at the top of this post, which is from page 104 in Wu’s book, is of a Song Dynasty moxiong and it looks very different from what I know as a dudou but apparently these terms stayed the same over time and were, at times, interchangeable. Were different terms used in different regions? Or perhaps this is an issue with Wu’s style of writing and she is using moxiong as a symbol of undergarments or using “become” to indicate change? Later on she says that the moxiong became the “little vest (小马甲 xiao ma jia) during the Republican period.

20th Century:
The 1920s-1930s “little vest” tightly binds the chest with buttons and during this same period there were more and more varieties of undergarments. However, Wu spends little time discussing the details of these undergarments, probably because they weren’t embroidered. This is an issue that has come up again and again during my time in China. No one seems to care about breast binding garments from the Republican period because they were not embroidered! Inspired by this small piece of text in Wu’s book, I was personally struck by how changes in technology affected the practice of breast binding. This isn’t something Wu discusses herself but when she mentions the “small buttons” used to bind breasts, I am reminded of descriptions of breast binding garments which mention small iron buttons. Is it possible that breast binding became tighter through technology, meaning, did the adoption of iron and steel buttons, which had to be made in factories and purchased in stores, allow for tighter binding?

Wu argues that the changes in undergarments during this period made them lose the qualities that made them so important in the first place. Undergarments were carriers of women’s skill and talent and they cultivated one’s moral character (106). The subject matter was varied and creative; scenery, flowers and birds, clouds, lucky symbols, supernatural beings, fairy tales, drama characters, the sky, and the earth were all represented on undergarments. Furthermore, old-style undergarments had plentiful designs, cuts, colors, styles, and patterns. What was most important in pattern was a FLAT FORM (106). When discussing the necessary “flat form,” Wu never mentions breast binding but wouldn’t binding be necessary to ensure that the chest laid flat under the garment?

Wu writes, “The allure of the totems in the art of ancient Chinese underwear is not only simply in the decorative patterns on each garment, but is furthermore in the originality of the position and arrangement of the decorative pattern, full of limitless romance,” (107). Additionally, Chinese underwear creates feeling and shows “tender sentiments” through contrasting colors and embroidery (107). While the modern bra is easy to use and popular, Wu seems to suggest that this garment removes the importance of underwear. She says you can no longer judge and admire these garments. In closing, I don’t disagree with Wu’s point that mass-production changed the meaning of undergarments. This is one of the main aspects of my research on breast-binding! Of course, it is impossible to know exactly how these garments were viewed by women, but trying to get as close as I can to that is one of the goals of my research.

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