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)
- 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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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 world? by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
My Related Posts:
- Fascinating Chinese Character of the Year 2012
- The enchanting Moon Fairy
- Who are the Butterfly Lovers?
- What is a Tomb Sweeping Day?
- Why do the Chinese eat Red eggs, not chocolate eggs?
- Chinese version of Eats Shoots and Leaves
- Weekly Writing Challenge: An ‘interview’ with MO Yan, potential Nobel Literature winner 2012
- The most refined Chinese Farewell song
- Who is FANG Zhouzi? Meet The John Maddox Prize winner
- 5 changes of a Chinese wife in England: on Language
- 5 changes of a Chinese wife in England: on Culture
- 5 changes of a Chinese wife in England: on Food