“Natural Curves: Breast-Binding and Changing Aesthetics of
the Female Body in China of the Early Twentieth Century

By Jun Lei

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 27, no.1 (Spring 2015), pp. 167-227

In early twentieth-century China, criteria for feminine beauty went through rapid and radical changes, the female body became a key locus for meanings related to Chinese modernity. This essay delves into the portrayals of the female body in influential women’s magazines and pictorial magazines to explore how Western standards and native aesthetics competed and negotiated in shaping feminine beauty and women’s roles in China. The examination illustrates that as the cultural consciousness in Republican China shifted toward Western modernity, models and concepts from Western metropolises influenced Chinese criteria of feminine beauty. However, modern Chinese ideals of feminine beauty were not merely imitations: in translating the concepts of modernity, new standards for feminine beauty took shape within a preexisting matrix of Chinese cultural and aesthetic traditions.

Although breast-binding was often linked to foot-binding in public rhetoric as one of the two biggest evils in distorting and restricting women’s bodies, the former has received little attention from scholars. This article uses breast-binding as an entry point into the excavation of the complex forces that constructed feminine beauty in early twentieth century. It establishes that breast-binding, contrary to what anti-breast binding campaigns claimed, actually signifies the increasing aspiration among Chinese new women to exert control over their own bodies and their surroundings. The flat-chest aesthetics shared by young women in China and the West is not a pure coincidence considering the wide spread of ideas about gender equality and global circulation of images of women in magazines and other media of the time. With the reconceptualization of gender roles, it became more viable, desirable, and necessary to suppress gender distinction in fashion.