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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 301-330

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On Their Dress They Wore a Body:
Fashion and Identity in Late Qing Shanghai

Paola Zamperini


Going Somatic

And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

—Genesis, 3.7

One needs a semiotics of bodily adornment and personal accessory in order to know people: what Balzac calls “la vestignomie” has become “almost a branch of the art created by Gall and Lavater.”

—Peter Brooks, Body Work

In many cultures undressing—oneself and others—is considered a very erotic and enticing activity. The present essay, however, argues that leaving someone's clothes on can be just as interesting and titillating—at least within the context of academic research.1 Thus it is centered on fictional representations of clothed bodies and fashion in Shanghai within the realm of late Qing literary production.2 As it will become clear from the following [End Page 301] discussion, in vernacular novels written between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, clothes do much more than simply cover fictional bodies. They also constitute their social, gender, national, and racial identities. Focusing on the dialectic relationship between the body, clothing, and identity will help us to unravel the imaginary of a very interesting group of writers in one of the most fascinating junctures in Chinese literature and history.3

In the past twenty years, the scholarship produced about fashion and the body in many different fields has shown that in any given culture, fabricating a dress and wearing it simultaneously define the body as a cultural artifact.4 In other words, we cannot think about clothes without thinking about the body underneath, and we cannot see the body without thinking about the clothes. This finding becomes particularly relevant when we look at late Qing novels. Who (man, woman, Chinese, foreigner, young, old, rich, poor, and so on) gets to wear what, how, at what price, where, and why are issues that seem to weigh on the minds of the writers of this period. Thus, in the present investigation we will “go somatic,” meaning that we will look at the guises in which writers clothe their characters and the types of social and bodily knowledge they engender and mirror, as well as the emotional and cultural investments of the society that produced them.

Within the context of Chinese tradition, clothing is the marker not of sin, as the above quote from the Bible illustrates, but of “Civilization.” It is what distinguishes man from beast, Chinese from barbarian.5 Thus the moral implications in the Chinese case are just as urgent but of a degree different from the case of the Bible. The body must be covered not to prevent it from sinning but in order to reveal its “Chineseness,” ergo, its superiority vis-à-vis the outsiders. What is at stake is not just the moral status of an individual, marked in any event in his or her flesh by the original sin, but rather the collective superiority of the Chinese nation as embodied in the clothed appearance of one of its citizens. This concern with bodily surfaces and their meanings is echoed in traditional medical conceptions of the body. In The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Shigeisa Kuriyama shows how traditional Chinese medicine, from very early on, mapped the body as spatial layering. In other words, the medical view of the body was structured by the logic of depth.6 That adds [End Page 302] importance to clothes; almost before one's skin, they constitute the first level of a layered body. Given that for many a century the basic shape of Chinese clothing did not change in any significant way, the way one's dress or clothing was worn could reveal important details about a person. To borrow Erasmus's words, indeed clothing was “the body's body,” and...


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