A nursing mother has become the subject of ridicule and empathy, as people living in a rapidly changing society grapple with gray areas, such as provocative gestures and explicit content.
A young woman breast-fed her baby on the Beijing subway. Another young woman thought it "uncivilized", snapped a photo and posted it online. A website carried it, criticising the nursing mother for "exposing a sex organ in public".
The consequences came in rapid succession.
The breast-feeding woman explained that her baby was crying in hunger, and they were on a long commute to suburban Daxing. She did try to cover her breast, she said.
Her husband said the other passengers offered them seats and looked away while his wife fed the infant.
He's now threatening to sue the photo-taker for infringing on their privacy. They had previously asked her to at least blur the exposed breast in the photo.
The website involved belonged to a nonprofit that cleans up leaflets and flyers on subway trains. It has since taken itself offline.
The photo-taker issued an apology, but according to online sources, she has taken on another handle elsewhere and is still attacking the breast-feeding woman and her defenders.
The subway authority responded that it does not have rules about breast-feeding.
"We won't interfere with it," said a spokesperson.
"Instead we should provide support to women with special needs. For a woman carrying a baby, the rule says that other passengers are obligated to offer her a seat."
Even the United Nations International Children's Fund jumped into the fray.
It issued a Chinese-language statement through its micro blog, saying: "Breast milk is the most natural, healthiest, perfect food for babies. It is the mother's right to feed her baby at the first possible time, including in public spaces. Society should give more support for breast-feeding so mothers and their babies can have quiet and comfortable spaces. Even babies have a right to use public resources."
Proper and improper
While most people seemed to side with the mother, the photo-taker had her share of support.
There are many people in China who believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that it's not a nice thing to breast-feed while others can catch glimpses of your private part.
What may strike people in other countries as a storm in a teacup presents a perfect example of the muddy waters form any issues of ethics here. What one person sees as touchingly beautiful, another may call ugly or "ungainly", as the Chinese description for improper body exposure translates.
The absence of sophistication is the result of groundswells in human migration, demographic shifts and changing attitudes toward privacy.
Thirty years ago, most Chinese would make impromptu calls on a friend, without making an appointment first. Few had telephones back then.
Nowadays, this would be deemed rude.
In rural areas and old neighborhoods in urban areas, men would strip to their waists when the summer heat became unbearable.
Now this is strongly discouraged by local governments, who see it as uncivilized. While such a sight can be artistically appealing, it would invariably be scrubbed from government promotional images.
The difficulty of distinguishing between proper and improper exposure is very real for many Chinese.
The elderly may have very specific ideas that won't change, no matter what.
The young are susceptible to outside influences. What they see as uncouth one day may become vogue the next, after a pop idol does it on TV.
The recent news that South Korean broadcasters banned nine dance moves came as a shock.
These "hot dances", though not showing private parts, are clearly simulations of sex acts, yet they are readily available on the Chinese tube. Even pop star Madonna would blush at some of these gyrations.
Most people do not take courses to learn how to distinguish artistic nudity (such as bare-chested modern dancers and performance-art pieces), natural nakedness, (such as kids skinny-dipping in summer) and sexually explicit or suggestive exposure.
The rule of thumb is arousal.
Of course, people may become numb if the exposure is constant and regular, as with the South Korean dance movements.
While I was in Berkeley, California, a male student suddenly decided to go to classes in his birthday suit. He said there was no campus rule prohibiting it.
He was expelled, which made local headlines.
Supporters came out in the nude to protest. The city council passed an ordinance outlawing public nudity but spelled out exceptions: One is breast-feeding, and the other is artistic performance.
It's my conjecture that those who found subway breast-feeding offensive could have subconsciously equated it with peeing in public.
Both involve the exposure of private parts, and both would be done away from prying eyes even when conducted in public spaces. (Of course, most would do it in private if they had a choice.)
But there is a key difference: A baby cannot regulate his or her food time, but a healthy adult (or kid) should be able to hold their urine until the right facility is found.
For those unable to do so, such as babies, diapers are the alternative.
Beyond the association with sex, there's the tradition that heavily pregnant women or new mothers stay indoors.
It's not privacy per se but something in our culture that's deemed "unclean" and should preferably be kept out of public sight.
It took a nude photo of Demi Moore holding her protruding belly to change public attitudes and let people know that expectant or new mothers project images of not only beauty but beatification.
The iconic photo has been imitated across the world.
At the risk of generalization, I want to express an observation about some of today's youth.
They seem to harbour a double standard when it comes to issues such as nudity.
They'd protest against the slightest perceived offence by others one minute and seek out online pornography the next without any embarrassment about their underlying hypocrisy.
When they see a breast-feeding woman, their minds instantly jump to the realm of a sex act.
Had they been in a less or more developed era, they'd probably not think this way.
But they seem caught in the shifting sands.