Hybrid Hygiene: Medical Discourse on Breasts in Republican China

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:50 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Lin Jiao, Beijing Foreign Studies University
This paper explores medical and hygienic understandings of the female breast in Republican China. In the early Republican Era, women were reported to have bound their breasts due to traditional aesthetics and changing clothes styles. Breast-binding became a target for nationalist criticism and an “anti-breast-binding movement” was initiated in 1927. Existing studies on breast-binding either focus on the nationalist and emancipative discourse, or the aesthetic constructions in popular culture without questioning the medical rationales behind the accusations of breast-binding. However, this paper stresses the importance of the medical knowledge of the breast, which justified political and aesthetic disciplines on the female body. In early Republic period, contributors to popular medical journals claimed that breast-binding was devastating to women’s health, exaggerating that it was more harmful than foot-binding. This paper asks: Why did medical professionals believe breast-binding more harmful than foot-binding? What were the medical and hygienic bases of this belief?

I shall trace the genealogies of two interlinked hygienic beliefs. Firstly, I explore why medical journals claimed that women’s breathing method was fundamentally different from men’s, and therefore breast-binding is fatal to women. Secondly, I investigate how medical texts linked breast-binding with tuberculosis – one of the most pervasive and dangerous diseases in Republican China. This paper argues that the Republican medical and hygienic understandings of the female breasts were based on selective and gendered reading of traditional and transnational texts, which eventually turned into hybrids of pre-modern Chinese medicine, Daoist and Buddhist practices and modern Zen meditation in Japan.