Women's Breasts and Beyond — A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s


  • Aihua Zhang SUNY Stony Brook


In Chinese history, for nearly two thousand years, Confucian moral and ethical teachings had been upheld as a guideline for gender hierarchy, honored as a norm for evaluating women’s behavior, and employed as an instrument to subjugate women. As a result, women, in general, became sufferers and victims of the patriarchal Confucian society. To perpetuate male domination and female submission, some practices of bodily mutilation were promoted and imposed on women apart from spiritual injunctions such as “Three Obediences and Four Virtues.” Among those inhuman practices were footbinding and breast-binding. Women’s binding fate did not turn until the last dynasty—the Qing dynasty— was overthrown and Republic China established in 1912. During the early years of the Republican era, accompanying a surge of the anti-footbinding movement, the anti-breast-binding fervor was under way, both of which influenced Chinese women’s lives and changed their lifestyles. However, in contrast to the rich and diversified scholarly discussions of the former, the latter received less attention perhaps owing to its apparent inferiority in scale and impact. Moreover, when addressing the anti-breast-binding topic, scholars tend to fall into a stereotype of treating men as leaders and women as followers, thus dismissing women’s active role in the campaign. By exposing and comparing women’s call for unbound breasts with men’s, the paper intends to redress the insufficiency in scholarship and methodology; by examining the contested ideas around women’s breast-binding as well as its involved implications, the paper uncovers its multiple nature which denied a simplistic oppressed/oppressor interpretive model, and points out that Chinese women’s physical liberation depended more on its relation to national interests than on the need of female health care for its legitimacy and efficacy.