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Zhu Jiahua’s Breast Binding Ban

June 12, 2011

“Zhu Jiahua Proposes Ban of Women’s Breast-Binding” (朱家骅提议禁革妇女束胸)
From Guangzhou Minguo Ribao (广州民国日报)
July 8, 1927

and

“Guangzhou Order Bans Women’s Breast-Binding” (广州命令禁止女子束胸)
By Yan (燕)

“Breast-Binding” (束乳)
By Du He (独鹤)

“Footbinding, Breast Binding, and Ear Piercing” (缠足,束胸和穿耳)
By Fei Qian (飞黔)

All three in Revolutionary Women (革命的妇女) #8 July 20, 1927
Pages 13-16

Like my post on Guo Lin’s breast binding ban, I am going to put together some pieces about Zhu Jiahua’s breast binding ban from July 1927. The first is the Guangzhou Minguo Ribao article announcing Zhu’s suggested ban and the other three are articles from an issue of the Guomindang’s publication for women, Revolutionary Women. I have begun to look at Zhu’s other work and in the same issue of Minguo Ribao (Guangzhou) there is an article about Zhu’s suggestion to ban smoking and drinking for young people. I know that in the late 1920s he was a principal at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou but was moved to Zhongyin University in 1930. The reasoning behind Zhu’s ban is the same as Guo’s: protecting the nation and the race. There is clearly some kind of echo chamber within these Republican period publications; they all publish the same things over and over again about breast binding, often overlapping word for word with their rival publications. I am almost done writing about these and I am thankful for that as they have started to get too repetitive.

The Minguo Ribao article does not say much that I have not read before and it is well excerpted in Wu Hao’s book (here) so I do not have too much to add about it. The article says that because “our country’s womenfolk bind for beauty, hindering the development of the body and causing lung disease, [Zhu] specifically suggests to ban and reform.” Claiming that breast binding is only a beauty practice? Check! Hinting that it is women’s vanity and pursuit of beauty that is ruining the nation? Check!

A few lines down, the article says “This proposal looks into our country’s womenfolk’s evil body-ruining practices of which there are two, one is footbinding, one is breast-binding, 20 years ago footbinding pain existed in all walks of life, the government strictly forbade it and it has already been relieved, now today’s Guangdong women under 30 years old do not receive this binding, [but] to discuss indirectly experienced pain, [breast binding] is much worse than footbinding…it surpasses the evil practice of footbinding.” Why does breast binding surpass the evil practice of footbinding? While footbinding only affects the feet and mobility, breast binding (supposedly) affects the heart, the lungs, the stomach, and the breasts and thus also affects digestion, circulation, breathing, and breastfeeding. Throwing about the word footbinding (缠足), and thus all of the associations the word carried, was a powerful rhetorical tool for these reform-minded men even if it had very little to do with breast binding. At this point, the word would be so tied with ideas of backwardness and oppression that people in cities would want to disassociate themselves as much as possible from it. However, over the course of my research I have come to think that breast binding was a practice more akin to buying one’s first bra and that it didn’t permanently change the body the way that footbinding did.

Almost two weeks later, the Guomindang’s publication for women, Revolutionary Women, featured an article about Zhu’s ban followed by three articles about breast binding. This publication was put out through the GMD’s Shanghai Offices and its women’s bureau and the first issue was released in June 1927. It is really important to remember what was going on with the Nationalist party around the time of this publication: the GMD had only just established control over Shanghai a few months earlier when they took the city in March 1927 and a month later, in April 1927, they led a purge of Communists in the city. This particular periodical could be a means of reasserting the Nationalist vision on the “women question” and its early issues have articles on the relationship between women’s liberation and economic power, the main problems of women, and women’s education.

The first article in Revolutionary Women, “Guangzhou Order Bans Women’s Breast-Binding” (广州命令禁止女子束胸), is a discussion of Zhu’s ban. The article argues that the only reason women bind their breasts is simply “to engage in social activities and a social class’s absurd thoughts.” Of course the Nationalist party was not particularly hellbent on class warfare so what does this mean? It is a way of asserting a new class system, one that is as equally stratified as before but now based on the new “little family” (小家庭) with an educated, reform minded man as patriarch. Gone are the old days with their extended families and ancestor worship and when the higher classes cloistered their women! However, the Nationalist vision for women was rooted in women’s places as wives and mothers. So this isn’t a question of “liberation” vs. “oppression,” but one of just changing the scenery and terms of the basic conditions and inequalities of women’s lives.

This can be seen in Du He’s article on the same page titled “Breast Binding” (束乳). Note the use of 乳 ru to connote breast in the title, which connects the breast with milk and children, instead of 胸 xiong, which means chest and can be gender neutral. Du mentions Zhu’s proposed ban and says it deserves our attention because this issue “truly has a great connection with the citizens’ (国民)physique.” Du adds that breast binding is not just about women’s health, it is about the physique of the race. Women are the mothers of the nation’s citizens (国民的母乳) and the source of life, so when the mother’s body is weak when she gives birth it of course influences the citizen (国民). Du’s argument is that a woman’s role as a mother to future citizens is her most important one and she should re-orient her body to focus on it. To me, this doesn’t sound very different from the “old” ways of doing things except that now women are not producing children for the family and its glory, but for the state and its power. There is a profound shift in the focus of daily life during the Republican period. Whereas previously the family was at the center of society and a microcosm of the state/world, now the nation/state has subsumed all other concerns and has become the center of life. Its interests supersede individual interests.

Fei Qian’s article from the same issue of Revolutionary Women is preceded by a note saying it was written after Yan’s essay. It begins like the other two with a few sentences about how inhumane and barbarous this supposedly “beautiful” practice is but Fei wants the reader to know that he/she is not groundless in his/her assertions and that “anthropology” (人类学) has found many examples to support her argument. This is just the first example of Fei using “scientific” theory to prove his/her point and I am particularly interested in how these new categories of knowledge, like anthropology, come to be seen as cold hard facts. I don’t have anything particularly inspired to say about this change in knowledge and fact but it is definitely worth noting.

Fei sets up a narrative of civilization’s progress in which as consciousness grows and civilization progresses, “barbarous nature/gender” (蛮性 manxing) practices have slowly been eliminated. I assume that these “barbarous gender” things are footbinding, breast binding, and ear piercing. These practices were involuntary in the past but now times have changed and women have risen up from slave status (女隶 nv li). They have shed this kind of bondage on their bodies and demanded control of their bodies but if this is the case, Fei wonders, then why do women still hold fast to the fetters of these body bindings? Even the women who have received education and are a part of society still hold on to old thinking about beauty, old thinking which sees “sallowness” as beautiful. What are they doing? Fei Qian notes that of course footbinding is already a thing of the past but breast binding, which is the “#2 death penalty/punishment,” continues to make women sink into a morbid state. In “civilized” cities, breast binding is still in vogue with a class of fashionable women.

“Our” biggest goal, Fei writes, is not only to abandon this kind of morbid beauty/harmful practice, but to “melt away the differences between the men and women and unequal body development.” Fei quotes a German writer named Fuerding in Chinese (弗尔丁) as a scientific basis for her argument. I’m not sure who exactly this is but he wrote a book called Controlling Sex (支配性 zhipei xing) in which he argued that the differences in men and women’s nature (体性 tixing) are not natural but created by context. During the time of male dictatorship, men worked outside and their bodies became strong. If the roles were reversed, women would have strong bodies and men would have weak bodies. Fei uses this kind of thinking to say that “cheap tricks” like footbinding, breast binding, and ear piercing were started by men to weaken women’s abilities and weaken them to the point of being unable to resist men’s oppression and slavery. Women are not naturally weak, they were just groomed to be that way. Thus, “we” must liberate women from their place as family slaves and ensure that their bodies completely develop. When the sexes are equal, their physical strength and intelligence will be equal and independently developed. There will be no need for there to be a subordinate sex because men and women will have equal membership in society. True equality is a part of the story that is still to come but today, Fei requests that sisters liberate their chest, breasts, and ears.

Fei’s use of Fuerding’s ideas about male and female bodies is interesting. To argue that men and women are not naturally unequal and that it is just environment and society that determines their strengths and knowledge is new for this period and one I haven’t seen often in my work. But what is the standard of equality? Is it having the same skills as men? Is it gender neutrality?

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