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Breastfeeding flash mob reveals a changing attitude in China
By Doug Young

THIS week’s Street View takes us to Tianshan Road in Changning District, where a group of mothers stirred up controversy by holding a charity event where they breastfed their young children in public. To an American who has lived in China for more than a decade, this kind of event seems tame by Western standards. But it also seems quite bold for this conservative country where public discussion of sex is still largely taboo and often extremely awkward.

That said, I was quite encouraged to see that this kind of event was taking place at all, and even felt a small sense of pride that it was happening here in Shanghai. For a history lover like myself, the news conjured up images of the progressive city from the previous, when Shanghai was known for its racy dance halls and open attitudes toward male-female relations that were quite revolutionary at the time.

Last week’s headline-making event occurred when the group of mothers hastily assembled in a flash-mob type format that is suddenly becoming quite popular in Shanghai.

I got to experience the flash-mob phenomenon first-hand a few weeks ago on the university campus where I teach, when a large group of students suddenly assembled in the dining hall and began singing a love song on May 20, a date whose Chinese pronunciation sounds similar to “I love you.” I suspect such flash mobs are popular because they provide a way for people to gather for quick, lighthearted activities.

The subject matter was certainly a bit more serious but still relatively lighthearted when the group of more than 30 mothers assembled on Sunday for their “flash feeding” outside the Huijin Department Store on Tianshan Road. The entire event lasted just five minutes, and saw the group of women breastfeed their young children in public while using towels to keep things as discreet as possible.

The group said their purpose was to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding, and that there were no sexual messages. That seems quite reasonable and logical in an age of food-safety problems, which actually began with a series of scandals in 2008 involving infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

Not surprisingly, the event generated heated discussion on the Internet, where netizens debated the appropriateness of women exposing their breasts in public. Such debate is certainly healthy, though I personally don’t see much controversy in this kind of act that has very little sexual overtone and is meant to raise awareness of an important topic.

That said, it’s also worth noting that this kind of event probably never could have happened in China before now. Even when I first came to China in the mid-1980s, sex remained a taboo topic and was rarely discussed except in the context of family planning. Simple displays of affection like holding hands were rare, and kissing in public was non-existent. As a result, most people ended up marrying their first boyfriend or girlfriend, many of whom were “introduced” by close friends or family members in a practice that was just one step removed from arranged marriages.

Sex education

Fast forward to the present, attitudes are much more relaxed and public displays of affection are relatively common in big cities like Shanghai. Despite that, shortcomings in China’s clinical style of school-based sex education are a regular topic in the local media, even though nobody ever seems to take steps to change the situation.

Sex education in the West is far more comprehensive in schools, though many parents still remain embarrassed or hesitant to discuss the matter with their children.

All that brings us back to the breastfeeding flash mob and how to interpret this unusual scene on the streets of Shanghai. At the most elementary level, it does seem quite remarkable that the event happened at all.

Equally remarkable was the fact that local media felt comfortable enough to carry not only a report but also to print photos of the women engaged in the act.

I often write about how Shanghai is leading China back into the modern era through its adoption of a wide range of practices. Most are aimed at improving efficiency and making the city a more civilized and comfortable place for its millions of residents and visitors. Perhaps now we can add more open sexual attitudes to the list of improvements, as the city hesitantly re-embraces some of the progressive elements from its colorful past.

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