It added: "It's no wonder that some people get harassed if they dress like this. [...] Please be self-dignified to avoid perverts."
It has sparked a passionate debate in the Chinese media about what is considered appropriate dress in public, and the balance of individual rights and social responsibilities as regards sexual harassment on the underground, which is of course not uncommon in many other countries.
Here is the BBC News item on the varied public reaction to the microblog:
In response, several young women posted pictures of themselves in rather less revealing clothing with placards that read: "I can be flirtatious, but you can't harass" and "We want to feel cool! We don't want dirty hands."
The debate has touched on similar themes to those that surrounded last year's "Slutwalk" protests in the U.S., namely, whether authorities advising young women to dress more conservatively are simply fulfilling their duty of care, or whether they are implicitly - and insidiously - shifting the blame for sexual harassment from the perpetrators to the victims.
However, I think that there is a uniquely Chinese dimension to this story. It is about how a country undergoing rapid economic change, without democratisation on any comparable scale, goes about negotiating the inevitable conflicts that arise when boundaries between the private and public spheres are in a permanent state of flux - and the temptation on the part of ruling political elites to exploit such tensions and frame them as moral crises, obviating their responsibility to address their underlying structural causes.
Because that is exactly what happened seventy years ago, when the Nationalist government made public dress a politically-charged issue.
|"A century of humiliation"|
Throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), clothing signified the social rank of its wearer even more than it signified gender differences: men and women of comparable rank thus wore clothes of similar style and colour.
This began to change with the increasing militarisation of society in the late Qing and early Republican period. Reformers believed China's weak standing in the world reflected the weakness of its people, so that ending foot-binding and breast-binding was part and parcel of promoting the value of physical strength and vigour.
|Cutting off the Manchu queue|
In her book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation, Antonia Finnane has described the Republican period of the 1920s-40s as bearing witness to "a far-reaching vestimentary revolution. [...] Styles came and went as quickly as governments."
As I previously mentioned, this trend was initially promoted by the Nationalist government, since it believed that clothing that clearly delineated male from female bodies would also encourage people to take pride in their bodies, their fitness, and physical appearance more generally. This in turn was thought to be beneficial to the nation, and help foster a sense of collective purpose and much-needed national identity: "For the Nationalists, re-defining the boundary between male and female was part of the process of sorting out the chaos into which Chinese society had descended."
Another reason the government supported these developments, which I address in more detail below, was a widely-felt need to combat Western "Orientalist" prejudices about how Chinese people were inherently less civilised than the imperialist powers. If Chinese women could also walk the streets in tight-fitting dresses without constant harassment from male passers-by, it was seen as one more step towards disproving Orientalism.
Leo Tolstoy, in The Kreutzer Sonata, railed against "those detestable jerseys, bustles, and naked shoulders, arms, almost breasts." And for the KMT, "ultimately the line between femininity and overt sexuality in dress proved difficult to draw."
Traditionally, scholars played a key role in governing China in the role of mandarin officials. But the very same dissident intellectuals who had helped to pave the way for the founding of the Republic, and went on to edit reformist/cosmopolitan journals like New Youth and T'ien Hsia found themselves alienated from their creation: "the artifice of the intellectual class's right to rule - education's link to morality - had been dismantled by May Fourth anti-Confucianism."
In an attempt to reclaim their moral authority, the public intellectuals chose to focus on the figure of the "new woman" because these women caused such anxiety on the part of the government; making personal ethics a political matter was a strategy for re-empowering disenchanted philosophers:
In the same vein, the liberal writer Hu Jian argued that how "new women" conducted themselves represented whether China would use its new freedom to do good or bad things: "The choice she makes affects not just her family but society and indeed the entire nation."
According to Edwards, for the KMT "The link between political awareness and modern women was sufficiently strong for women in modern, Western clothing to be accused of having left-wing sympathies." In an attempt to impose its own very particular vision of how liberated women should look and behave, the KMT launched the 'New Life Movement' in 1934, a curious fusion of Christianity, Confucianism and European Fascism.
In his study of the ideological roots of the Movement, Arif Dirlik describes it as a fundamentally modern form of counter-revolution designed to harness the forces of modernisation for strengthening the national state:
"The Movement was against both individualism and class conflict, the two basic new forces in Chinese politics. Individualism was the basic issue of the New Culture Movement, class struggle the means advocated by the Communists. [...] New Life objections to these were grounded in the view that they were expressions of selfish interests."
As this quote indicates, the Movement was a comprehensive political campaign designed to re-orient people's basic thoughts towards serving and embodying the common good, as articulated by the central state - one of the main slogans was "from the self, to others." Chiang saw corruption and insubordination in the lower ranks of the state bureaucracy as a critical threat to his authority. But in his view the way to solve this was through making people see the world from the state's point of view, and the means to that end would be the detailed regulation and control of people's most basic manners and customs - one of the other slogans was "from the simple to the complex."
Zhiwei Xiao has described how sartorial regulations comprised an important part of the policy: