From Breast Binding to Bikinis

March 30, 2012
Editor: Sun Xi
Natural Breast Movement
An advertisement for a milk product during the early Republic of China. Breast binding was considered beautiful at the time. [history.stnn.cc]

An advertisement for a milk product during the early Republic of China. Breast binding was considered beautiful at the time. [history.stnn.cc]


In 1924, 15-year-old Wei Qingfen was already a physically well-developed young lady. Her mother had to bind her breasts with a band of white cloth wrapped repeatedly around her growing chest and torso, a practice that was common then. While foot binding may be one of the most recognizable features of Chinese cultural history, breast binding was no less of a shackle on women's freedom and health.

After she got married, the job of binding Wei's breasts fell on her husband. Wei's father-in-law, a feudal conservative, was very strict about the issue and often reminded his son to follow the practice.

However, at the time, some progressive thinking women were already beginning to support the natural breast movement which called on women to abandon the practice of breast binding and allow the chest to develop naturally.

One of the fiercest opponents of breast binding was Zhang Jingsheng, who held a doctor's degree in sexology. In his article 'Research on Nudity' published in the New Culture magazine in December 1926, Zhang emphasized that the practice of binding women's breasts was an ugly expression of the formalism that dominated Chinese traditional culture then.

"Women who use a piece of narrow cloth to flatten their breasts are denying their own beauty. Even worse, the practice is harmful to women's health, impairing their ability to breathe normally and eventually leading to lung diseases or even premature death. Moreover, bound breasts are unable to produce breast milk normally, affecting our children and the nation's next generation," he wrote.

At a Guangdong government committee meeting in on June 7, 1927, government official Zhu Jia raised a proposal to ban breast binding. He argued that there were two outdated customs that had ruined the bodies of Chinese women: foot binding, which was banned over twenty years ago, and breast binding.

Zhu said that breast binding was, in a way, even worse than foot binding as it weakened the entire body.

"Breast binding hurts the heart, lungs, and stomach and affects breathing and blood circulation. It impairs the body's development, making women frail and thin. And it has a negative impact on girls," Zhu stated.

Zhu's ban was very strict. It stated that if a woman had not stopped the practice within three months after the ban was imposed, she would be charged with a fine of 50 yuan (a great sum of money at the time), and that if the woman was under 20 years old, her whole family would be punished.

Zhu believed that his ban would abolish the practice in Guangdong Province and eventually, the whole nation. He claimed that the ban was 'not specifically for the happiness of women but actually based on the spirit of patriotism and for the improvement of our nation'.
A cigarette advertisement on The Shenbao, one of the first modern Chinese newspapers published from 1872 to 1949 in Shanghai. Influenced by the natural breast movement, people began to regard breast binding as outdated. [history.stnn.cc]

A cigarette advertisement on The Shenbao, one of the first modern Chinese newspapers published from 1872 to 1949 in Shanghai. Influenced by the natural breast movement, people began to regard breast binding as outdated. [history.stnn.cc]



Thus, patriotism became a driving force of the natural breast movement. Little by little, Chinese women's freedom began to be reflective of the progress of society and politics.

In an article published on August 10, 1927 in the Guomin Daily (a newspaper in Shaanxi Province of the time), literary scholar and reformer Hu Shi [*note] was mentioned as a leading advocate of the new movement. The article states that Hu spoke at a girl's private school graduation ceremony about the issue. The next day, an article was published in Jing Bao (a newspaper of the time) in which Hu told the author that Chinese female students were not qualified to be mothers because of the whole breast binding issue and that this was a big problem for the nation.

Zhang Jingsheng also furthered the issue in articles that he wrote and published in the magazine he founded, New Culture. In an article titled 'Sexual Beauty', Zhang wrote: 'The female posture that pushes the chest forward emphasizes the graceful curves of the female body. This is the beauty of a woman.'

In 1927, the government officially banned breast binding. Those who went against the policy would be fined.

An article published in August 1927 in the Shanghai edition of the Minguo Daily provided some insight into how the movement proceeded. Government leaders decided that to maximize the ban's effectiveness, they would go right to the source: girl's schools. They set up rules in schools everywhere that banned female students from binding their breasts and required teachers to supervise the implementation of the rule.

Thus it was that Wei Qingfen decided one day to bravely ditch her breast binding cloth. However, because there were no bras at the time, she simply went commando under her outer garments. Her father-in-law was outraged at the indecency and immediately summoned his son to rebuke him.

Due to his opposition, Wei had to re-instate the much-hated breast binding cloth. One day, she was walking on the street when a policewoman spotted her and fined her 50 yuan for going against government orders.

Wei and her husband handed over the fine notice to her father-in-law. He said: "Let them fine us as much as they like. I can afford it!"

He also told his son to forbid Wei from leaving the house.

But a few days later, a women's organization called on Wei and her family and discovered that she was still binding her breasts. Once again, they fined the family 50 yuan.

Her father-in-law gave up opposing the issue and never mentioned it again.

In pursuit of ideological emancipation, more and more women began to throw away their breast binding cloths. The phenomenon was recorded in many novels written at the time. For instance, in writer Mao Dun's [*note] novel Erode, Shake, the female character Sun Wuyang smilingly pulls her breast binding cloth out of her shirt, throws it on the ground, and says "Annoying thing. I can't breathe with it wrapping around me. I don't want it anymore."

In January 1928, the Guangzhou Minguo Daily published an essay by Jiang Xue titled 'Measuring Breast Circumference'. In it, Jiang describes going to a tailor's shop and seeing the tailor measure 'breast circumference' for the first time. The tailor also told Jiang that breast measurements have to be accurate so that the clothes will fit right. 

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