Last month, a new mother in eastern China’s Shandong province died while “sitting the month,” a phrase that refers to a traditional period of convalescence after childbirth. During this time, the 20-something woman’s family would not let her use a fan or turn on the air conditioning, even forcing her to cover up with a blanket despite the intense summer heat. Her death from heatstroke sparked a widespread public outcry.
Known in Chinese as zuo yuezi, such postpartum lying-in periods have a long tradition in China. In essence, zuo yuezi is a series of rules, taboos, and superstitions that the postpartum mother must observe as she recuperates in the month after childbirth. These include lying in bed and staying warm; wearing socks, slippers, and long-sleeved clothes; shutting the windows and doors; refusing non-family visitors; refraining from showering, washing her hair, and crying; avoiding books, TV, and the internet; refusing to walk up stairs or carry heavy objects; and abstaining from raw, cold, spicy, or acidic foods.
These precautions are ostensibly meant to prevent the mother from catching yuezibing — diseases thought to be common among postpartum mothers that may become lifelong afflictions. Modern medical science regards such notions as rather unscientific, but zuo yuezi — with a variety of modern modifications — remains an established tradition in today’s China. A highly educated young mother I know once insisted that she simply had to sit the month, pointing to assumed biological differences between the bodies of Chinese and Western women.
My friend’s words implied that lying-in traditions help strengthen the supposedly feeble bodies of young Chinese mothers. “After I gave birth, I broke out in a sweat at the slightest movement, which showed how weak the body becomes after childbirth,” she said. “You have to trust in sitting the month and let your body heal. But I’m not superstitious and I believe in modern hygiene, so when I did it, I had the windows open and the air conditioner on. I would also brush my teeth and shower.”
In today’s China, the lying-in period is seen as local knowledge with roots in unique cultural customs. Yet it also reflects how tastes are changing. With the advent of modern hygiene, more and more mothers are opting for so-called scientific lie-ins, with a consumer market springing up around this trend. For a price, most new mothers choose to attend specialized maternity hotels or hire maternity matrons in the weeks following birth.
But to denounce zuo yuezi as a backward, even harmful, custom would be an oversimplification. Instead, we should ask why the practice has endured in modern China.
It is generally believed that lying-in customs originated from the taboos that primitive societies held toward female reproduction. Unable to explain the reasons for the biological differences between the reproductive cycles of women and men, ancient humans frequently cast menstruation as dangerous or unclean. Lochia — the medical term for the discharge excreted in the weeks after childbirth — was often thought to be the menstrual blood that had accumulated over the course of the pregnancy and thus was seen as particularly impure. Certain cultures chose to temporarily isolate menstruating women or postpartum mothers as a means of warding off danger.
Lying in is a more abstract effort to isolate supposedly impure blood and prevent it from contaminating other people. In the Shanghai dialect, shemuniang — women who sit the month at home — stay in a room called the xuefang, or “blood room.” In the old days, this space was isolated to avoid the bad luck that could befall a family if they came into contact with impure things. Neither mother nor child were allowed to leave the room, and visitors were not allowed to enter.
In the past, physical isolation would have been effective to a certain degree in preventing infection. But nowadays, such concerns are obsolete. Therefore, it is worth examining all these rules and taboos on a deeper psychological and cultural level.
The arrival of a new baby disrupts family life immensely. It ruptures established routines and creates a new social order within the household. During this transition, the baby becomes a full-fledged family member, while the woman — traditionally speaking — transitions from a wife to a mother. The new father and grandparents express their appreciation to the mother by showing her care and devotion.
As family members readjust their domestic relations, the older generations pass on deep-seated rules and taboos concerning the mother’s body, which allows them to uphold their authority and guarantees a certain amount of order and continuity. Exhortations to listen to our elders remind us that beyond the mere maintenance of the family line, childbirth is also about conforming to shared culture and values.
The lying-in period corresponds to a time when the mother’s body is naturally frailer than usual and has undergone enormous changes. While modern medicine and obstetrics have existed in China since the end of the 19th century, many Chinese still prioritize traditional health care practices in certain situations.
Supporters of zuo yuezi claim that it suits the physiological idiosyncrasies of Chinese people, but anthropologists believe that it comes down to culture instead. They argue that from a young age, people of all cultures cultivate physical abilities that they use to experience the outside world and hone to fit their environment. The sensory and bodily experience of zuo yuezi is one such technique, and the purpose of culture is to cast it as natural and correct.
In China today, “scientific” maternity centers provide the country’s wealthier mothers with this singular bodily experience. Celebrities and middle-class women alike have fallen for centers that emphasize postpartum recovery and scientific approaches to infant care. These centers also help young mothers wrest back control of their bodies from their often-overbearing elders.
The tradition of zuo yuezi has evolved over time but has not disappeared. As the American sociologist Edward Shils wrote, “Change as well as persistence are gripped by the past.” China’s postpartum lying-in periods are no different; the practice’s legacy resists analysis through the lens of a dichotomy between science and superstition.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A mother (left) watches a pediatrician examine her newborn baby at a luxury maternity center in Shanghai, Jan. 6, 2012. VCG)