Oriental and western views on postnatal confinement

Private Eye: Woman has baby

Private Eye on the royal birth: Woman has baby. Image by Duncan via Flickr

When I saw the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) beaming radiantly outside the hospital with her baby boy, George, just 27 hours after her birth, I felt slightly uncomfortable.

Strangely, I heard my mum’s voice ringing in my head: “Terrible! Why is she walking about? She should be lying in bed. Poor girl — oh no, she had washed her hair? Look! It’s so windy. The wind is so bad for her. What? She’s wearing high platform shoes? Not wearing socks? Good grief!”

What’s the one-month postnatal confinement?

Traditionally, Chinese women must observe a strict one-month postnatal confinement. Even now, a lot of modern and highly educated women still follow the tradition. Though there are regional varieties with the rituals and taboos about the confinement, the common taboos are as follows:

  • washing hair
  • drinking cold water
  • cleaning teeth
  • eating fruits considered ‘cold’ (or ‘yin’) in nature
  • touching water for a lengthy period of time
  • being exposed to the elements, especially wind (from the fan or outdoor wind)
  • crying
  • moving about

Women normally don’t show off their baby until after their one-month confinement period, when mother and baby are considered healthy and have overcome the most fragile period of their life.

Visitors are not welcome. The first month should allow new mothers to recuperate, and to avoid possible viruses from unnecessary contact with the outside world. Mother and baby are normally well looked after by an army of relatives, especially the woman’s mighty mother in law. Some women would return to their old home to be looked after by their own mother. It’s also common that husband and wife are separated for the month.

No one expects a new mother to be sociable, looking radiant and be slim. Women are encouraged to fully recuperate to heal. Some women describe their one-month pig-like existence humorously: ‘eat and sleep all day.’

A month with root ginger and rice wine

I remembered as a young adult, I was entrusted with an incredibly important task to finely chop root ginger day and night for my sister, who had just given birth. My mother would then fry the chopped ginger in sesame oil, and when the ginger turned brown and fragrant, chunks of chicken or pig’s kidneys or chicken’s liver would be added to the ginger. Lastly, a bottle of home-brewed rice wine will be poured in generously. For the whole month, the main diet of a lot of new mothers is ginger and rice wine based dishes.

My mum had prepared in earnest some home-brewed rice wine, and I remember how the sweet, perfumed, yeasty rice wine smell permeating our small bedroom. However, we still needed more rice wine, so I was entrusted with mission number two: buying rice wine in the black market.

Pig's trotters with old ginger and vinegar. Image by Jason D'Great via Flickr

Pig’s trotters with old ginger and vinegar — a popular dish for women during their confinement. Image by Jason D’Great via Flickr

In Malaysia, home brewing is illegal, so I had to be secretive with my mission. I behaved like a drug addict trying to buy heroin from a drug dealer. I walked to an old lady’s house in a dark and narrow lane. I pushed a few dollars into her hand, and she would quickly give me some bottles, each wrapped in layers of newspapers. Our transaction was quick. My mum believed that home-brewed rice wine was the best for her daughter. I’m not sure what made my mum trust this old lady, her brewing techniques, and the safety of the wine. However, as it was a small village, everybody knew everybody. Buying rice wine from the lady was simply based on trust.

The story of the Daughter Red wine 

In Hangzhou, the capital and largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China, there is a tradition of brewing Maiden Rose (花雕酒: huādiāo jiǔ; lit. flowery carving wine, also known as 女儿红: nǚ’ér hóng, lit. Daughter Red, a type of Yellow Wine). The wine is prepared in the Shaoxing area, made and sealed when a girl is born, and the wine can only be opened on her wedding day.

Regarding the origin of Maiden Rose or Daughter Red, legend has it that once upon a time, in Shaoxing, a tailor was disgusted that his wife had given birth to a daughter. Annoyed, he buried a few urns of his carefully prepared wine, meant for the celebration of the arrival of a son, under a sweet olive tree (Osmanthus fragrans) in the back yard. 

To his surprise, years later, the tailor’s daughter turned out to be bright and beautiful, and a gifted seamstress too. The old tailor happily married his daughter to his favourite trainee. On their wedding day, the old tailor suddenly remembered the sweet olive tree, and the few urns of wine underneath it. He quickly dug them out for the banquet. The rich, vibrant intensity of aroma filled the air. From then on, people called the specially brewed wine Daughter Red, and some families still keep this tradition alive, by preparing wine once a daughter is born, for her wedding day.

Science Cop Fang Zhouzi attacks confinement as malpractice

Is the Chinese one-month postnatal confinement a valuable tradition, science, pseudoscience, or simply superstition?

Fang Shimin, with his pen name Fang Zhouzi 方舟子, is a Chinese popular scientific writer known for his campaign against pseudoscience and fraud in China. The New Yorker called him a Science Cop. Mr Fang is one of the most controversial characters in modern China as he also challenges many established views held as unshakable tradition by some Chinese people.

Fang Zhouzi, the Science Cop in China

Fang Zhouzi, the Science Cop in China

In this blog post, Mr Fang explained why the one-month postnatal confinement is an scientific malpractice that is more likely to harm a new mother than to support her. Mr Fang argued that the taboos in the confinement should be broken as they are against modern science.

When challenged, Mr Fang confirmed that his wife didn’t follow the one-month confinement. “She washed her hair and was free to move about after birth.”

According to Mr Fang, a lot of Chinese women are intimidated into believing that if they allow a certain part of their body to touch the water, the particular part of their body would suffer from pain in the future. New mothers are warned that if they dare to wash their hair during the confinement period, they’ll suffer from incurable headache for the rest of their life. Furthermore, women are frightened that they might catch a specific ‘confinement related disease’ if the taboos and strict confinement routine are broken.

Preparing Chinese Confinement Spa

Mo in Vancouver BC from May Contain Nuts blogged about her confinement period and how she healed and rebuilt her body. She took confinement seriously to please her mum, and also “to lessen the chances of any aches and pains” when she is older.

Mo described beautifully how ginger was meticulously prepared for her to bathe and clean:

“Boil the peel in hot water (about 8 – 10 litres) and let it simmer and stew for about 30 minutes. Then turn off the heat and scoop the peel out. It’s okay if there are some small bits left.  Let the water cool enough so that you can bathe or pour it on your head without burning your scalp off but still maintain good heat. Discard the peel (unless you are super chinese cheap and reuse it, but after boiling for 30 minutes, I’m sure any of the good stuff is gone).”

From “Homemade Chinese Confinement Spa” on May Contain Nuts

In her post, Mo described her mother’s firm belief of the importance of avoiding ‘wind’ after birth: having too much wind in the body “could lead to arthritis and the inability to hold your pee/poo in when you’re older.” In the post, you will see wonderful pictures of the careful preparation of the confinement spa. It is eye-opening. Mo gave this treatment an endearing name: Gone with the wind.

One-month postnatal confinement for Duchess of Cambridge?

The image of the Duchess of Cambridge showing off her baby boy to the public has shocked many Chinese people, and there is a huge media coverage about her relaxed, radiant appearance and her freedom to walk about. The heated debate among the Chinese people is: Is the one-month postnatal confinement a great Chinese tradition?

In this news report from Taiwan, the subtitle reads: “No need for postnatal confinement?! Kate showed her face just one day after giving birth.” The newsreader commented, “A lot of people are so confused now. They think it is strange. How could Kate dare to go outdoor, expose herself to the wind, and meet so many people? Didn’t she need to be confined?”

And the newsreader later revealed to the public that western women actually do not observe the one-month confinement rules.

Kate Middleton with her baby

“Why did Kate Middleton dare to catch the wind one day after giving birth?”

A journalist posed this serious question to the public: “To the oriental people, a woman who has just given birth is not allowed to get out of bed. She is not allowed to have a shower, nor to catch the wind, and she has to stay indoors for 30 days. Is it really ok to behave like Kate Middleton, who is freely walking about?” 

Nutritious food for Chinese women after giving birth

Nutritious food for Chinese women after giving birth

In this news report, two doctors (both Chinese) were interviewed. Doctor Li is trained in western medical science. His view is that as long as the new mother is healed well, without medical complications, such as a temperature or anaemia, she should be allowed the freedom to function normally 3-5 days after birth. Extra maintenance is unnecessary.

However, another doctor from the traditional Chinese medical background argued differently. Doctor Wu explained that a woman who adheres to the confinement rules will be less likely to suffer from backache in the long term.

The subtitle below reads: “East and west are extremely different! Western postnatal women do not focus on maintenance. According to the Traditional Chinese doctor, they (i.e. western women) age much quicker.”

Traditional Chinese doctor: Western women age faster due to lack of maintenance

Traditional Chinese doctor: Western women age faster due to lack of maintenance

Below is the news report in Mandarin Chinese. Though you may not understand the language fully, from the images in the video, you would be able to get the essence of the report, based on my translation above.

I hope this post gives you an in-depth understanding of the conflicting viewpoints in the Chinese society relating to postnatal care. You can also see the power and influence of the new British royal couple in the east, and how their every movement is being monitored in the Chinese-speaking world. Since the royal baby birth, I have not come across any report in English discussing the Chinese response to Kate Middleton’s wellbeing, from the point of view of the tradition of the one-month postnatal confinement. Therefore, I hope you find the discussions in this post refreshing, or, entertaining.

This post was inspired by What is your lens on the worldby Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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24 thoughts on “Oriental and western views on postnatal confinement

  1. kerenbaker

    Your blog is always such a good read – I must say, I would love to see the old fashioned English confinement of 5 days in hospital (or at least home) encouraged again. I’m sure a lot of infections would be lessened and maybe some of the tiredness and frustration too. When I think of what I did straightaway after each of mine – it was a stupid thing & yet there seems to be an unwritten ‘super mum’ tendency expected in all of us that we should carry on as if nothing major and amazing has happened to us both physiologically & emotionally. If I’d had a confinement imposed upon me (even just being made to stay in bed for a few days with my new baby) I could see major benefits!!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Keren,

      Thank you for this wonderful feedback. I agree that women should be allowed to rest, in hospital or at home, and get help in their first weeks. We used to have a very small postnatal hospice here and I managed to get in for a few days after birth. The food was not brilliant — only cold sandwiches, and there was no kitchen, but I was given a routine by some very stern midwives. The visiting time was brief, even for the father.

      The unnecessary pressure on women in this country is depressing. I saw the front page of the OK ‘celebrity’ magazine and I was shocked. The magazine boasted an exclusive “Duchess diet”, and revealing how “her stomach will shrink straight back”.

      Royal baby news: OK! magazine facing boycott over Kate Middleton ‘weight-loss’ feature – led by celebrities – Mirror Online

      A lot of Chinese people spend their first weeks in their pyjamas only. There is also a belief that women who observe the one-month confinement are less likely to suffer from postnatal depression, but some people disagree, as some researches reveal that postnatal depression in some Chinese women may actually be triggered by their compulsory confinement, after they are being forced to be controlled by their mother or their mother in law for the whole month and they couldn’t cope with the strict regime.

      Reply
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  3. snowbird

    What a brilliant post……I really enjoyed it and I absolutely loved the way you handled the subject matter with sheer common sense and balance. I loved reading about your mum’s version of childbirth, now there’ a woman I like!! Absolutely fascinating finding out about the month of confinement, I had never heard of that !xxx

    Reply
  4. Helen Williams

    This is a wonderful post Janet. Thank you for educating me yet again. In Germany you can stay in hospital up to five days after a normal birth (two weeks after a c-section). I stayed four days after both of mine, after which I have to admit I was desperate to get home. I think enforced confinement is unfair on the mother and the idea of not washing my hair for a month fills me with horror. However, it would have been lovely to have been ‘looked after’ for a month – to be fed, have the house cleaned, the shopping done etc. so I could have just concentrated on my new baby. And I love the ban on visitors. We were inundated with people wanting to see the new baby and I spent my time rushing around making tea and cakes while everyone cooed over the baby.

    I don’t think the Chinese way is the right way, but I also think we don’t get it right in the West – there is a huge expectation on new mothers and a lot of criticism of anyone who shows weakness. The best would be a happy medium; a way that respects the new mother but also gives her the chance to be looked after.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Helen,

      Thank you for such a wonderful feedback. It sounds like Germany has a much better health care system, as ‘five days’ is a luxury in this country. My friend was almost forced to leave hours after giving birth as there was no bed in the hospital.

      I visited my niece a few years ago in Singapore. She is a highly educated woman, yet she followed many of the confinement rules. She even hired another trusted older woman to stay with her and the baby, so that someone can look after her and the baby, and her mum could focus on cooking her nutritious rice wine based food……. I don’t think she had to worry about changing her baby’s nappies either, as this task was also taken over by relatives. All chores were taken away from my niece and she was very spoilt.

      Some Chinese women couldn’t cope with the demand during the confinement, however, and it would cause breakdown in relationship with the older generation.

      It would be great to find a happy medium between the east and the west, like the yin and yang. There’re so much we could learn from different cultures.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I must say: “liver cooked with ginger” in sesame oil, plus at least half a bottle of fragrant rice wine is really yummy! You may not believe it but it’s really delicious.

      Reply
      1. Addarline

        If you ask me about the happiest time in my life, it’s definitely the 2 months of confinement I spent during my 2 childbirth. Although there are so much taboos to adhere, some of which I find ridiculous (eg. no standing while drinking water, shower and wash hands with only boiled water), the overall pampering and peace is heavenly.

        I get 3 nutritious meals cooked at regular hours, herbal water for showering prepared to the right temperature, baby is well looked after and all I have to do is breast feed and bond with her. Gifts are welcome but visitors and all telecommunications are confined to only close family members. A massage lady is hired to give me 8 sessions of traditional Indonesian massage and wrapping which puts me quickly back to shape. After 1 month, I emerged a happy mom who’s totally radiant and shapely. I think every woman deserves a good Chinese confinement!

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        Dear Addarline,

        Thank you so much for sharing your experience on the Chinese confinement. While a lot of westerners may not understand the Chinese confinement tradition (I don’t understand it 100% either), your story above has enlightened us. Thank you.

        Traditional massage sounds so lovely.

        In the west, many women leave hospital to a very hectic life — not always out of choice. There’re so much for the western women to cope after birth. People expect them to be out and about so soon. You truly look radiant.

      3. Addarline

        Hi Janet,

        I think nobody need to fully understand the tradition to enjoy living like Cleopatra, do we? haha!

      4. Janet Williams Post author

        ‘Living like Cleopatra in my glorious one-month confinement period’ — this is the title of your new book.

        You show how best to combine the east and the west. You’re so highly educated, so westernised in Singapore, yet you lived like Cleopatra during your confinement period (Did you wash your hair in confinement? Or did you wash your hair with hot water soaked in ginger?) Your example just shows that tradition does not have to clash with modern education.

        I wish I had your luxury. My husband bought me fish and chips after I left the hospital.

      5. Addarline

        Oh course I washed my hair! And did with warm herbal water every other day. Well, we have to adapt traditions to suit modern conditions and not follow blindly. Then everyone’s happy!

        Hugh is right about giving you fish and potatoes, they are nutritious. But please ask him to steam it the next time round!

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