On Corsetry and China
As a first-year PhD student, I made a corset. It was finished on the Sunday of winter break, and I carried an ache in my hands to class the next day.
I sat in that seminar room with my spine held taut, the steel bones I’d trimmed down with wire-cutters flexed around my waist. I’d spent that fall semester—my first as a trainee China scholar—periodically laced into an off-the-rack corset, made to generic dimensions. I bought it for $72, off a website that also sold elastic shapewear.
This corset was modestly curved. When I worked the teeth of the metal busk together over my stomach and tugged at the length of shoelace that criss-crossed its back, the bones inside compressed my torso into an inverted-parenthetical shape, as if two little divots of flesh had been hollowed from my sides. The resulting silhouette read, I thought, more orthopedic than fetishistic—mild and straight-spined.
I’d ordered this corset after reading the fashion scholar Valerie Hansen’s cultural history of stiff-boned, waist-tapering garments from the Renaissance to the present. Struck by the early modern notion of stays as the sign of a “polished and disciplined mode of self-presentation,” I’d sought something subtle in its contours, restrained. The corset’s color, though, was a concession to my brash contemporary tastes: a blaring, Best Buy-logo blue. Still, that shocking ultramarine was a secret, hidden beneath my regular clothes.
Under the obfuscating textures of my dresses and shirts, my corseted shape took on an indeterminate, pinched appearance—a vague thinness that looked only modestly off, against the width of my shoulders and the broad circumference of my thighs. The corset’s bottom edge extended low, over my hip. When I wore jeans, the satin lip of it sat a few inches below my waistband, loops of shoelacing tucked discreetly underneath.
Corset enthusiasts call this secretive mode of wearing “stealth”—a transitive verb like, say, “to imagine.” You can stealth a bright blue corset under a white cotton shift, the way I did to the East Asian library one afternoon. For the most part, though, I stuck to thick fabrics, opaque shades. In navy button-downs and oxblood sweater dresses, I wore my corset to seminars and book talks, where I must have projected attentiveness. My posture, in its native state, tended towards a forward-dipping, screen-seeking slouch. Corseted, though, I became a parody of old-fashioned poise—graceful in repose, though unable to bend.
Sometimes, studying at home, I’d dig this corset out of its drawer and lace it on, right over whatever T-shirt I wore to sleep. Its bones—not baleen, but steel—held the osseous plates of my back and shoulder in alignment, so they wouldn’t hurt from hours slumped over library texts. These were the benefits I’d catalogue to my roommates: pristine posture, back support, the slight pressure that grounded you when you tried to construct an argument from a text you weren’t sure you understood. They were beginning to ask about the corsetry supplies I had shipped over to the house: grommets and pliers; lengths of flexible steel like flattened slinkies; a tightly woven specialty fabric called “coutil.”
My roommates were, for the most part, also PhD students in the humanities, all in various stages of degree completion. I chatted cheerfully with them about my emergent craft process, as if I were explaining a research project. The fusible interfacing I roll-pinned between layers of coutil, the tapered awl I used to bore little holes for the busk: this technical detail gave my oddball hobby a respectable gloss—not quite intellectual, but intelligent, like the fiddly craftsmanship of translation. This specificity of language, whether philological or theoretical or sartorial, was something we all learned to respect.
Even so, I’d shrug on a bathrobe when I wore my corset at home, so they wouldn’t see that band of blue on me if they knocked at my door. My interest in corsetry wasn’t sexual, but something still felt prurient about it—me, as a Chinese American woman, refashioning my body into the hourglass shape of old-timey, white femininity. It was the sort of pastime that demanded technical abstraction: the visible sign of it on my body made me squirm.
I talked to my roommates about corsetry: the practice of reconstructing, with modern methods, a solid and rigorous anachronism. I never mentioned my fascination for another obsolete ornament, both analogous and contemporaneous.
But that makes sense: none of them were China scholars. They wouldn’t have understood my embarrassed affinity for the Sinology of the 19th century—another sort of discipline, far less fashionable than corsets.
Back to the first day of my second semester. I kneaded my palms together under the seminar table, back held straight by the hand-trimmed bones of my corset. I’d drafted the pattern myself, drawing panels on butcher paper that I traced with tailor’s chalk on my rosebud-print coutil. The pale green ribbon I’d bound to the corset’s edges was already beginning to fray—my stitches, made by hand, were neither strong nor well-placed. But the back panels I’d drawn, cut high near my shoulder blades, let me sink into their supportive pressure as I examined the professor’s PowerPoint.
The first slide showed a passage from the Zhuangzi, the Warring States miscellany that formed the basis of our class. Its substrated dialogues and anecdotes, all dating from the time before imperial unification, were attributed to the roving fourth-century BCE philosopher who gave the text his name. Zhuangzi—that is, Master Zhuang—writes (by convention, the way the apostles wrote their Gospels) with an elegant forcefulness. It’s a style at once freewheeling and compressed, like the motile intention you see in gymnastic bodies in flight.
The first snatch of classical Chinese on the slide was footnoted by lines of prim Victorian English, a translation I recognized at once. James Legge, the missionary-turned-scholar who produced it, fell out of style long before I fell into Chinese Studies. Like every other student of classical Chinese, I’d learned to scoff at him even when I checked my work against his, following him, sneering, through the labyrinthian sense of some tricky passage.
The truth was, I liked Legge: his stiff-jointed sentences, the dry papery texture of his prose. I liked him with more than the fondness of a student for a useful crib. In his stiff, sanctimonious lyricism and his Protestantizing flourishes, I found something oddly touching—an artifact of an era that still charms me, as long as I don’t think about it too hard.
At the end of The Religions of China, published in 1880, Legge reconstructs a conversation he had with Guo Songtao, then Qing China’s ambassador to Britain. The resulting passage reads like one of the Warring States philosophical dialogues he translated in his genteel, brittle style. But in this conversation, produced from living memory instead of necromantic philology, Legge’s prose is forthright. Guo asks him which country he finds “better,” England or China:
I replied, “England.”
He was disappointed, and added, “I mean, looking at them from the moral standpoint;—looking at them from the standpoint of benevolence, righteousness, and propriety, which country would you say is the better?”
After some demur and fencing, I replied again, “England.”
I never saw a man more surprised. He pushed his chair back, got on his feet, took a turn across the room and cried out, “You say that, looked at from the moral standpoint, England is better than China! Then how is it that England insists on our taking her opium?”
For Legge, this account furnishes “proof” of his homeland’s “selfishness and greed.” The Second Opium War was concluded just nineteen years before his argument with Guo, resulting in an unequal treaty that pried Chinese ports open to Victorian traders and forced Chinese cities to welcome Victorian preachers.
Legge himself spent his youth and middle age fishing for converts in Hong Kong. But as an elderly scholar, long retired from the mission field, he expressed distaste in print for the entanglement of pulpit and profit, the “ambitious and selfish policy of so-called Christian nations” that intruded on the cure of souls. In The Religions of China, he yields the last word to Guo: the 310-page text quite literally closes on “opium.”
As a student of Chinese history, I’ve stayed away from modernity, all the aches and horrors and humiliations that still read like fresh purpling bruises in a field that encompasses millennia. My domain lies in texts like the Zhuangzi, compiled centuries before the first ships bearing Jesuits cut through the South China Sea. Something still feels disorienting, of course, about learning the language of my distant forefathers from a sometime British evangelist. Never mind that the Chinese of the Zhuangzi bears as much relation to my parents’ Mandarin as the Venerable Bede to the sentences I’m typing now.
I have more in common with Legge than with Zhuangzi—not temperamentally, but culturally. I grew up in Texas, inside the halo of a Protestantism that still reaches with light-drenched fingers for the far corners of the earth. I learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer without ever going to church. Even now, despite my studies and my atheism, NIV Bible verses drop more easily from my tongue than fragments from early Chinese texts.
Classical Chinese is far more Legge’s language than mine. It always will be.
The Zhuangzi passage is a dialogue, much like Legge’s dialogue with Guo. Legge’s role falls to a Warring States duke, who is schooled—in both the proper and demotic sense—by a social inferior who surprises with his wisdom. Guo’s role, of the unlikely pedagogue, is played by a wheelwright named Bian. Let me show you how Legge renders this passage, so you can get a sense of his style when he’s translating an archaic conversation instead of reconstructing a remembered one:
Laying aside his hammer and chisel, Bian went up the steps, and said, “I venture to ask your Grace what words you are reading?”
The duke said, “The words of the sages.”
“Are those sages alive?” Bian continued.
“They are dead,” was the reply.
“Then,” said the other, “what you, my Ruler, are reading are only the dregs and sediments of those old men.”
The duke said, “How should you, a wheelwright, have anything to say about the book which I am reading? If you can explain yourself, very well; if you cannot, you shall die!”
The wheelwright said, “Your servant will look at the thing from the point of view of his own art. In making a wheel, if I proceed gently, that is pleasant enough, but the workmanship is not strong; if I proceed violently, that is toilsome and the joinings do not fit. If the movements of my hand are neither (too) gentle nor (too) violent, the idea in my mind is realized. But I cannot tell (how to do this) by word of mouth; there is a knack in it. I cannot teach the knack to my son, nor can my son learn it from me. Thus it is that I am in my seventieth year, and am (still) making wheels in my old age. But these ancients, and what it was not possible for them to convey, are dead and gone: so then what you, my Ruler, are reading is but their dregs and sediments!”
When I examined the slide, I must have checked my reading of the Zhuangzi against Legge’s, my gaze roving back to the footnotes every few characters. But what I remember most is the nerves firing, at my waist and in my palms.
The steady press of the corset didn’t hurt, but my hands did—I kept rubbing at the pillow of flesh underneath my right thumb. I’d pressed it against pliers all weekend, hard, using them to clamp tips onto the ends of the metal bones. Otherwise, the steel would bite through layers of coutil, working red marks into my skin. The corset’s lining, slip-stitched by hand to the other side, was a quilting cotton I’d chosen for the morbid quaintness of the print: on a pea-green field, black urns and butterflies.
In the Anglophone world, nonspecialists who have heard of the Zhuangzi know its eponymous master mostly as the butterfly dreamer. In the text’s most popular passage, he emerges disoriented from a sleep in which he traded warm blood and higher faculties for two roving antennae and a pair of frail, translucent wings. Upon waking, he can’t tell who he is anymore. A philosopher named Zhuang, who lately dreamed of being a butterfly? Or a butterfly, now dreaming of being Zhuang?
Unlike Legge, I am, I think, a fundamentally lazy person. It’s evident in the way my body sags into its own gravity now, when I have no silky exoskeleton to hold it up. I feel it as I type: my spine sloping over the keyboard, shoulders knitted together above my rounded back. Without the external discipline of a corset, which I haven’t worn in years, my posture yawns itself into formlessness.
I see this lack of discipline in my brain too, where it looks less like torpor than a kind of directionless overactivity. I flit between the spontaneous blooming of shifting interests, less scholar than butterfly.
The idea of my academic future, for instance, once seemed spell-binding. In a fellowship report, submitted in exchange for research travel funds, I described my dissertation optimistically as a “garden plot, the little corner of my field that I’ve found to cultivate, not yet grown to green.” Now it sits, perhaps eternally pre-verdant, while my insectoid attention seeks the nectar of other fields.
In the religion scholar Norman Girardot’s intellectual biography of Legge, the scholar emerges as the opposite of this hothouse dilettantism: he did one thing very well for his entire life, first as a missionary and then as a professor. I think that’s why I’m drawn to him still. There’s something romantic about the idea of that unbendable continuity, as sweetly implausible to me as a fairy tale.
Girardot offers a revisionist account of Legge’s achievements. He’s historically been dismissed by his disciplinary descendants as a hard worker—meticulous in his combing through texts and paratexts, but ultimately a tedious evangelist with a tin ear for prose. Girardot, for one, finds this judgment unfair.
Still, I was most touched by the passages in his biography that cast Legge in his traditional aspect of the grind, patron saint of tireless study. Girardot describes him learning Chinese with a ritualist’s discipline, absorbing the language through habituation. He lived by the motto Nulla dies sine lines, not a day without lines—translating “passages back and forth from Chinese and English. “Let me labor at it,” he says, “till it becomes as simple a matter with me to write a little story in Chinese as in English.”
It’s not that I haven’t lived through periods of concentrated diligence—prepping for my qualifying exams, or writing towards encroaching deadlines, deep into the dawn. But if Legge’s instinct for work is a muscle, flexing from within, mine has always felt like a thing extraneous to me. When the exam has been aced, the conference paper presented, I fold my virtue away and slouch back into a natural state of indolence.
I tell people I’m trained as a cultural historian of China. This means, theoretically, that I’ve been habituated to write the way a cultural historian of China writes: not with the filigreed Latinisms of Legge, but with the fine-fingered precision of a modern scholar. Graduate school is a finishing school, or so I thought when I started it: you learn to take on the right refinements. Through constant repetition, you learn to shape the lumpy substance of your thought into the right sort of sentences, your language narrowed to a series of delicately constricted points.
Corset enthusiasts who “waist train” put their faith in the power of habituation too. Through the repeated application of steady, artificially imposed pressure, they hope to rearrange the memory of their muscles and fat. Compress the bones over your flesh for long enough, and you hope your waist will remember what it feels like to shrink. When the corset comes off, you’ll stand with your posture intact. Nulla dies sine lines.
That successful habituation was all I wanted from graduate study. There was a likeness, in my head, between the hardness of steel bones and the hardness of difficult texts, a discipline I hoped would retrain the soft instability at my core.
Instead, I’ve grown comfortable with unruliness. Now, the flesh around my ribcage spills over the satin lip of my handmade corset: the teeth of its placket will no longer close. And as I approach the indeterminate ending of my studies, I can feel my language overspilling the prim restraint of academic prose. I write plush, slouchy sentences, make arguments that ooze and flow instead of jointing themselves neatly together.
When I went to visit Legge in 2018, I didn’t realize I’d be saying goodbye. Within a year, I’d quietly fold away my ambitions for a faculty job and start writing baroque, chaotic, gleefully unrigorous essays instead. At the time, though, I still hoped to produce a dissertation I could remold into a monograph. So I sought inspiration from the patron saint of productivity.
I’d been in England for the past several months, on a fellowship that allowed me to sit in the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Reading Room every weekday, taking notes on Ming-dynasty imprints of Han-dynasty texts. I didn’t pack a corset into my single suitcase. By the end of every workday, even when my mind remained jumbled and my notebook blank, my back was curled into a single parenthesis in my chair.
One day, I took the train to Oxford to visit the Bodleian and photograph the pages of a rare book. I can no longer remember how I found Legge’s old home. I must have been checking the bus route from my Airbnb to the library when I stumbled on the announcement of a commemorative plaque being unveiled for him, just a week before my visit. The house it marked stood across from Oxford’s Department of Computer Science.
I took a detour to see that building of sand-colored brick, just to stand on its threshold for a couple of minutes in the sun. To the left of the door, a round disk, the sharp electric blue of my corset, announced:
Missionary and Sinologist
Translator of the Chinese classics
In the selfie I took there, the plaque is suspended to the side of my face, the pale letters more legible than my expression. My mouth, coated in coral, doesn’t smile, and my eyes are shaded from view by white-rimmed sunglasses.
There’s a sloping quality to my shoulders, rounded inside my white blazer. The one jointed to the arm that holds my phone looks poised to rise up to my ear. My waist, cropped out of the shot, is unbound.