Thursday, July 23, 2015

Maternity Myth: Chinese postnatal confinement of the mother

The first time I heard of 坐月子 ("Sitting the Month") was when a Taiwanese Chinese colleague was getting ready to have her first child. The conversation went something like:

"I can't come in to the lab for the next month."

Oh, no?

"No. You know, I have to stay in bed for a month after I have my baby."


"You know: a new mother has to stay in bed for a month after having a baby."

No... I don't know what you're talking about.

"Didn't your mother stay in bed for a month after you were born?"

I don't think so. I have photos of her doing things around the house before I was 1 month old.

"Oh, you mean that she went to the bathroom?"

No. I mean that she was cooking and cleaning after she recovered from her birth.

"Whaaaa? Did she wash her hair?"

I'm pretty sure she did...

"Whaaaa???? Did she drink cold water?

Uhhh... Yeah, she probably did... Why?

"You know that she should not have done that!!!"

This was the way that I learned about "Sitting the Month," and the more I learned about my colleague's version of it, the more I thought that it was just wacked-out insane. What's more interesting is that my colleague (the only Chinese person in the lab) was absolutely certain that this was how women had to act in order to recover from their birth. All women. And she was certain that it was just my being a man that meant that I didn't understand this. When she talked to a female colleague, she was even more confused, when that female colleague was similarly clueless of this absolute truth of post-natal living and similarly convinced that it was wacked-out insane.

The whole experience of uncovering this Chinese maternity myth (which apparently formed a deep part of my Chinese colleague's expectations of the first month after the birth of her child) reminded me that so many social customs are culturally insulated, because they rarely come up in conversation, partly because we all (falsely) assume that "everyone" knows the same "truths" of the world as we do (and partly because - for whatever reason - the discussion of some topics just don't enter into conversation).

So what are the "mainstream" postnatal "truths" that govern the lives of roughly 1/7th of the women of the world whenever they have a child (and which almost no one outside of China has ever heard of)?

Well, looking around online, I found a few different sites that seemed to converge on a list of things that new mothers should and (mostly) should not do during the first month after giving birth:
  • Don't drink cold/plain/any water.
  • Consume alcohol/Chinese wine/evaporated wine.
  • Don't shower or wash hair.
  • Cook with "hot" and/or red foods/ingredients. ("Hot" here is in relation to Chinese herbal medicine, not actual temperature.)
  • Wear warm clothes/completely insulate yourself with clothing.
  • No air conditioning.
  • No contact with cold water/any cold thing.
  • Do not leave the house.
  • No reading.
  • No crying.
  • No cellphones.
  • No salt/soy sauce.
Additional proscriptions may include:
  • No hydroponic vegetables.
  • Eat chicken.
  • No TV.
  • No computers.
  • No sex.
The perspectives in the article from China Simplified are pretty good, indicating that it's heavily based on a reaaaally old set of norms:
The first mention of Chinese postnatal confinement in China’s recorded history dates back 2000 years to the Han Dynasty. In the past two millenniums, society has abandoned countless traditions due to disconnects with or irrelevance to the so-called modern world. Yet somehow this specific one stubbornly survives.

How popular is the topic today? A search for 坐月子 the book section of displays over 200 published titles providing a bounty of advice and guidance on confinement., China’s version of Yelp, lists over 100 confinement service centers in Shanghai alone, with the highest rate of RMB 300,000 (USD 50,000) for the one-month premium “mommy care” array of services.
Additional perspectives from Rachel Lu on ChinaFile provide complementary ideas:
The confinement tradition is so full of elaborate—sometimes contradictory—injunctions and taboos that many new mothers hire live-in professionals to help them navigate the process. An industry that’s both rooted in tradition and tailor-made for modern China has become big business: the yuesao, or “confinement ladies,” who spend a month or two living in the home of a new mother and her baby. Traditionally, a new mom could look to her own mother or mother-in-law to provide vital support during the confinement period. But many young mothers now eschew that arrangement. Having a separate apartment, after all, is now de rigueur among China’s urban newlyweds. And frequent depictions of visceral generational clashes in soap operas, popular novels, and online discussion forums have also instilled a fear of mothers-in-law into younger women.

Historically, the month has been sacrosanct in Chinese culture. Overexertion and blood loss during birth weakens a woman’s chi, the theory goes, while exercising, exposure to anything cold, or negative emotions during the recuperation period can cause long-term damage to the new mother’s energy flow. The list of potentially offending activities can be long and confusing. Some traditions forbid leaving the house altogether. Others recommend drinking liquids from evaporated rice wine instead of water for an entire month. Still others advise against adding salt and soy sauce to any food. Even articles that purport to debunk confinement myths often give their own bewildering suggestions—it’s an old wives’ tale that eating raw fruits after birth would harm one’s pancreas, according to one article on, a site popular with new mothers. But the article also insists new mothers dunk fruits in hot water first to prevent “blood congestion” in their stomachs and intestines.
Basically, "Sitting the Month" is based around the traditional Chinese idea of chi... and all the messed up conclusions that are associated with such a system. It is an analogue of using the Four Humours method of medicine to assist in getting pregnant:
The ones who have cold stiff wombs, will not become pregnant. And those with excessively wet wombs will not become pregnant; for the offspring is extinguished. Also, the ones with dry and excessively heated wombs will not become pregnant, for the seed perishes due to lack of nourishment. But as for the ones with a well-proportioned mixture of both wetness and dryness, they will become pregnant.
Yeah... from this perspective, the mysteries of Eastern Medicine can be seen to be about as mysterious and applicable as the mysteries of Medieval European Medicine. (Sure, leeching can have curative effects, but not because of the reasoning given by the four humors approach to medicine.)

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