Wednesday, 4 July 2012


The Shanghai Metro authority recently posted the photo below on its official Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), along with a caption urging women to "pay attention to how you dress" to avoid sexual harassment on the busy underground.

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"

According to Valery Garrett's Chinese Dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present, late-imperial China had fashion - in the sense of short-term shifts in tastes and consumption associated with social mobility - but no fashion industry (though we have to remember that, until 1949, simple jackets and trousers were the norm for all but a relatively small urbane minority).

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

Likewise, the cheongsam, a close-fitting, high-collared jacket - known as a "banner gown" for its association with the Manchus - developed in two directions. On the one hand, it became the qipao, a convenient and figure-hugging one-piece, high-collared dress for women ("natural feet" also enabled more women to wear skirts without trousers); on the other, it became the changpao, otherwise known as the "Sun Yat-sen suit" - a civilianised military uniform popularised by the Kuomintang (KMT) leader:

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."

After the "May Fourth" movement, a skirt and jacket-blouse combination became an essential marker of modernity for urban women. But after a brief period of androgyny in the 1920s, the fashions of the 1930s saw a renewed separation of the sexes.

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.
The qipao

But there was a deep tension underlying these ideas, connected with the ambivalence that ran through all the reforming efforts of China's turn-of-the-century modernisers towards the importation of Western values (or "essence", as opposed to mere "form"). If being civilised in the eyes of the West meant being modern, then it entailed venturing into the unknown, which Western societies also found unsettling. Finnane has observed of the system of ideas used to legitimise the West's civilising mission that:

"Progress placed much store on clothing, which separated the savages from the civilised, but the essential decorum of Chinese women's dress challenged Western observers, whose own clothing culture fostered a deep tension between tendencies to conceal and to reveal the human body in its sexual aspect."

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."


According to a fascinating article by Louise Edwards, the politics of public dress in China took a very strange turn in the 1930s. The progressive and left-leaning intellectuals who had led the "May Fourth" protests and subsequent New Culture Movement, and who opposed the increasingly repressive and anti-democratic government of Chiang Kai-shek, nevertheless concurred with the KMT in attributing the young Republic's failings to the moral deficiencies of the "new woman" (xin nuxing).

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:

"The policing of the modern woman by the intellectuals who had led the charge in "imagining" a modern China was a symbolic attempt at policing the boundaries of national governance to ensure these included "virtue and education." [...] Moralising about "what modern women do with their freedom" allowed the reformist intellectuals to claim the platform of spiritual guardians."

In their turn, the KMT feared the new woman because they didn't trust these women with their newfound freedom and self-awareness. Emerging from such a deeply patriarchal society, the women were seen as lacking experience of making decisions for themselves and controlling their own lives; but for the very same reason, they held such potency as political symbols in the Nationalist project of presenting a fresh, clean, civilised image of China to the outside world - if the people with the least experience of freedom could be trusted to use it responsibly, it could shatter the self-confidence of the "civilising" Europeans.

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:

New Life Movement stamp

"The entire population was subject to a dress code that stressed cleanliness and tidiness - not a fancy and elaborate kind of grooming...but a simple and austere appearance conveying a sense of frugality and discipline. [...] In 1934 the authorities in Beijing banned women from wearing clothing that would expose their legs; the governor of Shandong, Han Fuqu, ordered the arrests of women on the streets following their alleged failure to observe the feminine virtue of modesty in public places."

It was intended to channel people's energies away from using force to effect political change and towards "an administrative vision of politics" whereby "everyone would reform his or her self to become a model for others and also to watch over their behaviour." In a speech he gave in 1934, Chiang summarised the Movement's 'Essentials': "Virtues must be applied to ordinary life in the matter of food, clothing, shelter and action. [...] By the observance of these virtues, it is hoped that social disorder and individual weakness will be remedied and that people will become more military-minded."

According to Finnane, the Movement "managed a great deal of individual harassment and interference. Women especially were made to feel the whip of those who resented the changes in female behaviour...and were frequently harried or even attacked if they wore immodest clothes or behaved flirtatiously." Yet it failed to make the hoped-for advance from focussing people's minds on smoking in public, provocative clothing and casual sexual liaisons, to focussing on matters of national importance:

"Detailed regulations in Jiangxi gave the exact dimensions for hem lines to fall below the knee (4 inches), for the slit in the traditional Chinese dress to rise above the knee (3 inches), and for a blouse worn with trousers to fall below the line of the buttocks (3 inches). Despite the seriousness of its original intent, the New Life movement gradually trickled away in a stream of trivia."

Yet what concerned the marginalised reformist intellectuals was the way in which a Movement ostensibly targeted against "self-seekingness" was paradoxically fuelling a consumer boom amongst urban women. Although it praised "frugality" and "modesty", in fact the Movement had given a significant boost to consumerism and fashion-consciousness by telling women they had to obsess over how they looked in comparison with others around them - dressing for the nation inevitably meant dressing like the best in the nation. 

You can get some impression of the (limited) cosmopolitanism of Shanghai from this footage:

For the progressives, this new advertising and marketing culture threatened to hollow out the power of the "new woman" as a political symbol altogether.

Here is how Zhiwei Xiao describes these concerns:

"The commodification of woman that replaced China's traditional oppressive attitudes was not a true liberation and moreover would damage the national cause. [...] This was not because she would jeopardise the nation with her lack of chastity, as the conservative moralists would have argued, but rather because she would jeopardise the nation with her inadvertent falling into "traditional" misogynist modes."

Hence, in his 1933 article Xu Qingyu argued that to achieve true equality women had to "wash off the cosmetics, throw out the pearls, liberate the breasts and discard the high-heel shoes and qipaos." "As they walk around in their high-heel leather shoes", wrote Zhang Yinghua in the same year, "you can hear the hobbled patter of bound feet."


National Women's Day, 1959

Early on in the People's Republic of China (PRC), Mao had proclaimed the liberation of women as inseparable from the creation of a "new China" - "women," he famously proclaimed, "hold up half the sky." Of the rhetorical attacks on women from the left and the right before 1949, he had written: "I think women are regarded as criminals to start with, and tall buns and long skirts are the instruments of torture applied to them by men."

Overall, the Mao era's record on women's rights is decidedly mixed - having made divorce and contraception more readily available, they also demanded a certain amount of public service from women which was not always balanced by a proportionate increase in the domestic work of men.

The Communists (CPC) also reversed the KMT policy on women's dress. In an article that covers this period, Finnane has written that the CPC framed this as part of reversing the Confucian separation of the sexes (nan nu you bie): "The climate of the Cultural Revolution was unfavourable to the survival of the qipao and indeed to any form of gender- or status-distinctive dress. [...] Safety was sought in obscurity."

The return of involuntary haircuts

In the 1920s, the jacket-suit had briefly been fashionable amongst both men and women as an androgynous fashion; in the 1960s-70s, it once more became a ubiquitous gender-neutral form of dress in China's streets, now re-christened the "Mao suit" (ganbu zhifu).  

I emphasise the period from the 1960s onwards, because I want to correct a common misconception that exactly before and after the period of Mao's rule (1949-76) everyone in China suddenly had to dress like him. In fact, there was a short-lived renaissance of interest in modern, Western-style clothes in the PRC during the 1950s. Just as Deng Xiaoping would later declare that "poverty is not socialism", so too did the CPC - before the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s stifled dissent - flatly reject the KMT's obsession with presenting an image of modesty and self-restraint to Western observers (there was a periodic emphasis on frugality in campaigns, but this had more to do with the needs of the beleaguered economy than public image).

In the mid-50s, numerous Party-controlled newspapers, such as the New Observer (Xin Guancha), published parodies mocking the affected austerity of some overly earnest comrades, who seemed to be trying to dress themselves to look as drab and bland as possible. At the same time, a flurry of hybridised styles borrowing elements from French and Russian fashions became popular in urban China after the Soviet Union, then in the swing of Khruschev's reformist "thaw", held fashion shows across the country.

Here is a picture of Christian Dior in Moscow:

And a Soviet fashion show as part of the National Exhibition in the U.S.:

Shen Congwen and
Zhang Zhaohe

It was in this atmosphere that a widely respected historian named Shen Congwen decided to investigate the recent history of Chinese clothes, to see whether a diversity of clothes for men and women could in fact be framed as a rejection of a discredited imperial past. But as Finnane has described, the history proved to be too politically-sensitive:

"A dress reform campaign launched in 1955 featured a few discussions of historical clothing but these were drowned out by the hubbub of the Hundred Flowers movement and the subsequent anti-rightist campaign. In 1964 the eminent Shen Congwen embarked on an archival research project on clothing of the imperial era, but the project ground to a halt in the Cultural Revolution. Shen was sent down to the countryside to raise pigs and many of his research notes were destroyed."

From the 1960s civilian dress was once again re-militarised in the form of the unisex outfits typical of the Red Guards.

In form, if not in content, this signified a revival of the ethos of the New Life Movement, with its emphasis on outward appearance as a marker of righteousness:  

"The exclusively social interpretation of morality abolished the distinction between inner virtue and external appearance... Orderly behaviour - in its manifestation of "love for the state and loyalty to the nation" - was incontrovertible proof of inner rectitude."


In the post-Mao era, the "new woman" has once again become, in Finnane's phrase, "a signifier of the nation." On the subject of China's "millennial youth" and the new individualism that emerged from the pro-market economic reforms of the '80s and '90s, Robert L. Moore has written:

"With the post-Mao reforms, individualistic tendencies emerged. [...] New clothing styles appeared in the 1980s, replacing the virtually universal, solid blue, grey or brown loose-fitting shirt and pants combination of the Mao years. For the first time in decades, young women in colourful dresses and men in Western-influenced sports shirts and pants appeared in urban China."

Fendi Fashion Show at the Great Wall

At the same time, because of the legacy of intermittently extreme authoritarianism during the Mao era, new women are once more seen as gauges of whether Chinese people can be trusted to enjoy their new personal freedoms in a responsible manner. As Moore has noted in his article, there is a prevalent anxiety, especially amongst the older generation, that today's young women have been abandoned in a moral vacuum by a state that undermined all previous social constraints by interfering in private family life and then itself began to retreat from private affairs.

Herein lies a basic contradiction in China's development model: the state has formally withdrawn from significant areas of people's private lives and by doing this it has unleashed vast amounts of entrepreneurial energy and stimulated an economic boom. But that economic growth has been achieved under a highly unequal growth model, with two important consequences.

First, the hukou system of residency registration has helped to manage the public costs of urbanisation, by encouraging the families of rural-urban migrant workers to remain in the villages. As such, the policy has fostered a swathe of young illegal migrants in China's urban centres who lack the basic rights of other residents, including health and education, but also the protection of the law (since reporting crimes to the police would implicate themselves).

Here is a talk on the lives of young female migrant workers by Leslie T. Chang, who has written an absolutely must-read book on the subject, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. A key message of that book is that the Mao-era campaign for gender equality had a limited reach in the countryside, so that today arranged marriages and similar traditions continue - for many migrant women, their brief sojourns in the towns and cities is their only chance to experience romantic love.

Second, the abolition of the so-called "iron rice-bowl" - the system of comprehensive state-provided social benefits - for most of China's citizens (especially in rural areas) in combination with the one-child policy, has left large numbers of people materially insecure and dependent on their children in old age.

As a result of this combination of policies, in China today there is a vast range of factors that divide the generations - in terms of economic prospects, social experiences, geographic location, etc. - but which are all essentially problematised by the systemic imbalances in a growth model that best serves the interests of the ruling Party.

Shanghai 'Sexpo', 2010

Moreover, the Party periodically exploits generational divisions in order to distract attention away from the structural divisions which make them a political problem. And a way that it does this is to whip up a moral panic that the young women of today have been corrupted by sexual promiscuity and loose morals compared with their upstanding buttoned-up seniors.

Below is an excerpt from an interesting CBC documentary about the "sexual revolution" in contemporary China. It shows how the Party launches regular "crackdowns" on the karaoke bars and massage parlours that are fronts for brothels, and then forces their staff to undergo "public humiliation" sessions to appease the moralists - but this is ultimately a cynical token gesture, because the government knows that the gender imbalance caused by the one-child policy drives the demand for prostitution beyond state control.

Besides various government campaigns launched to improve "civility" and public conduct ahead of important international events in China (e.g. a 'Citizen's Guide' published ahead of the 2010 World Expo that encouraged residents to "trim your nostril hair short" and intoned that "it is glorious to queue"), moralising commentaries by public authorities on women's public appearance have additional resonance, because of this history of politicising dress. Evidently, the government continues to use the imputed moral deficiencies of marginalised and vulnerable social groups as scapegoats for its own political and economic inadequacies.

The last word goes to the social critic Lu Xun who wrote eighty years ago: "A woman has so many parts to her body, life is very hard indeed."


1 comment:

  1. Brilliant blog. I have reposted to Silk Road Philadelphia on Facebook. Thank you!