About two months ago my friend Zeng gave birth to a baby daughter. Just like most Chinese girls she wanted to have a child immediately after getting married but there were some medical problems and it took few years before she finally became mother.
When I called to congratulate her, she just had finished the “zuo yue zi” (坐月子) – one month period from the childbirth during which Chinese young mothers follow a long list of strict rules.
“Jiaqi*, never again!” – complained Zeng – “I don’t care about the pain of delivery, but zuo yue zi… that’s too much”
* – Jiaqi is my Chinese name
Of course, I know the customs to which postpartum women in China obey, but I was curious to hear more from someone who just experienced them firsthand. What was so terrible about them?
Well… in Zeng’s case she was forced to abide by the following rules:
- Immediately after giving birth she had to constantly wear a hat or some other cover to keep her head warm.
- Because Zeng had Caesarean section – during the whole month she wasn’t allowed to leave her bed except going to toilet.
- No matter how hot it was getting in the evening she was prohibited from exposing her hands or feet and had to keep them under the blanket.
- First food was given to Zeng only after she was able to “break wind” for the first time (… I’m not sure if I chose the right euphemism for that )
- My friend left the hospital after 5 days. Before being “transported” back home she was carefully wrapped with multiple layers of clothes. And upon arrival home she, of course, was immediately put to bed again.
- Zeng’s mother-in-law didn’t let her to eat with the rest of the family and the food was brought straight to her bed.
- Wash hair – forbidden; taking shower – forbidden; wash hands, feet and face – no, no, no…
“I was really weak and felt so hot – especially after eating. I felt that in the evening my clothes were completely wet. But I wasn’t allowed to use air-conditioner or even small electrical fan.” – continued my friend – “You know, since I couldn’t wash my feet, I developed some rash. It was so itchy, I hardly could stand. Only after two weeks, when I really couldn’t bear it anymore, my mom helped me to wash my feet.”
But you might be quite surprised that in the end Zeng rationalized her experience in the following way: “I think that because I abided by these rules, I will have less diseases in the old age.”
Chinese believe that women following the tradition of “zuo yue zi” later will have less health problems. I asked some other friends of mine how they behaved during that period. Most confirmed that they didn’t wash hair for 2 weeks and didn’t take shower for 3 weeks. And their opinion on the usefulness of such procedures was almost unanimous – “Some rules are questionable, but it’s better to put up with this hardship for a month and avoid serious health problems in the future.”
And here are some other prescriptions and explanations regarding the post-birth period which I gathered from different sources:
- Drinking tea is not allowed because it might harm an infant and make him/her cry without any visible reason.
- If woman doesn’t stay in bed for the whole month (and some even recommend to prolong it for the period of 45 days) and gets up or makes any kind of exercise – it can result in the prolapse of uterus.
- Chinese women use a special bandage (more than 10 meters long and 30-40 cm wide) to tightly wrap their belly so that it becomes flat again as soon as possible.
- Instead of taking shower women clean themselves with the mixture of hot water, alcohol and salt. Towel or other cloth is soaked in this solution and used to wipe the body.
- Only boiled water (after it cools down) is used to brush teeth or wash face.
- It’s not just that air conditioner and fan are prohibited – one can’t even open the window. Break this rule and in the old age you’ll have arthritis and migraines.
- Women are not allowed to breastfeed in the sitting posture. Instead they have to lie on the side and the baby is put next to mother’s breast.
- All fun activities, like reading or watching TV are limited. Disobedience is “punished” with the prospect of eye diseases.
- There are also many dietary restrictions which vary in their strictness. No cold food. No sour-tasting food. Some exclude from their ratio raw vegetables and fruits. And most orthodox even refrain from drinking water (the main source of liquid being soup).
There is, however, one happy exception: sex is allowed!
If you ask me whether I am going to abide by these rules myself, I will say that it mostly depends on who will take care of me during my “zuo yue zi”. If it is my future [non-Chinese] mother-in-law – then I will escape from most of them (probably, being forced into some alternative ones in exchange ). But if it’s my mother… well, I will have some hard times.
By the way, I was kidding about sex. Of course, it is forbidden during “zuo yue zi”.
Not passed yet through her share of Chinese woman’s hardships, Crystal Tao