China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This paper explores the visual and textual representation of breast-feeding in Republican and early Communist China. From the 1920s onwards, breast-feeding by wet nurses was fiercely criticised in newspapers and magazines in Republican China. On the one hand, wet nurses were demonised by the Republican discourse. Depicted as ignorant, uneducated, unhealthy or malnourished, as well as ill-mannered, it was suggested that wet nurses could do great harm to or even kill the infants. Breast-feeding her own child came to be advocated as a woman’s natural and civil duty, a way to fulfil her role as a “mother of healthy future citizens”. On the other hand, left-wing intellectuals emphasised the suffering of wet nurses, who were from the lower class of society and could only survive by sacrificing the wellbeing of their own children. After the establishment of the PRC, depictions of the miserable lives of wet nurses only remained in articles that recounted the evils of the past. Communist discourse on breast-feeding focused on the joyfulness of motherhood, which resulted from a prosperous Communist country. By examining a large number of periodicals, this paper argues that women’s breast-feeding was employed as an index to women’s emancipation, nationalist and Communist ideologies.