"Where Does a Body End?"
Tour of China Jamie Johns

Unlike some of my fellow Fulbrighters, I am not writing a dissertation at the end of my research so I have decided to start blogging about it instead. This is, primarily, a way to help myself since it means I will have a complete log of everything I am reading and looking at but I also want to be able to share what I am doing with the world at large. Some people (students and others) seem interested in my topic and I might as well share!

My Fulbright research is on breast-binding and the introduction of the brassiere in early 20th century China. Until the 1900s, breast-binding quietly took place in China and like the other, more famous body binding in China, it was rarely discussed in public. Once China’s “backwardness” became a national issue in the early 20th century and male reformers became obsessed with the relationships between women’s rights/bodies and China’s world status, breast-binding became a hotly contested “problem” (wenti) in Chinese society. Throughout the 1910s-1930s, breast binders were castigated as unhealthy, negative influences on Chinese society primarily because women who bound their breasts were viewed as possessing weak bodies. In the minds of male reformers, these women could not raise healthy children because they did not breast feed their children. This was especially important during the New Life Movement in the 1930s, which promoted the image of women as wives and mothers. Second, the idea of a “natural body,” a Euro-American / Christian idea, became all-pervasive in China during this period and women who bound their breasts in the name of beauty were not only seen as corrupting nature but also seen as vain and selfish.

I am interested in how nationalism intersected with ideas of beauty, femininity, and women’s rights and how changing definitions of breasts reflected different ideas of what it meant to be a woman. I am also interested in the gap between discourse and reality; while Chinese publications (directed at both men and women) promoted a voluptuous body in articles, advertisements, and calendars, photographs from the time show that women seemingly still bound their breasts and adhered to the idea that a flat chest was beautiful (pingxiong meixue).

A third issue I am interested is the production of both binding garments and undergarments as a whole. Undergarments were one of the first items to be mass-produced. This is important for industrial development in China, but I am equally interested in how women made and personalized undergarments by hand prior to mass-production and later how mass-produced undergarments were marketed and purchased. The brassiere, a mass-produced Western object, was brought to China in the late 1920s as an answer to the binding issue but it wasn’t immediately accepted by urban Chinese women, let alone rural women. This move away from women’s work towards mass-production is interesting to me, as is the initial rejection of the brassiere.