DIFFERENT CHINA (ep 11) | Ancient Postpartum Confinement Evolving and Kicking in Today’s Luxury
Postpartum confinement refers to traditional confinement during a period of time (usually 30 or 40 days) for mother and baby immediately following childbirth. These practices usually focus on bed rest, healthy recovering for the mother and baby, confinement from external influences.
Although practically extinguished and unknown in most Western societies through ‘modernization’ of and views on lifestyles and health care, postpartum confinement is practiced in many Asian and Latin American societies.
In China postpartum confinement is rooted and alive, not only in rural or traditional environments but also in modern, urban environments with new parents-to-be generations. The confinement in China is known as 坐月子 (Zuò Yuè Zi ; “Sitting the Month”).
Did you know the origin of the word ‘Quarantine’
The word ‘Quarantine’ originates from ‘La Cuarentena’, the postpartum confinement ritual in South American cultures which are still active in Latin societies. La Cuarentena is a period of approximately 40 days, or six weeks, during which the new mom abstains from sex and is solely dedicated to breastfeeding and taking care of her baby and herself.
During this time, other members of the family pitch in to cook, clean, and take care of other children. In some Latin American countries it's traditional to use herbal remedies during this period to aid in recovery. It's also common to offer the new mother special meals, such as vegetable soups made from scratch. Once this period is over, it's believed, the new mom is ready to return in full to family life.
History and Traditions of Zuo Yuezi; postpartum confinement in China
The earliest written records of postnatal customs in China are from the pre-Qin period, over 2,000 years ago where it was Qin’s way of demonstrating the respect held for women’s position in society. Specific postnatal confinement traditions of which some are still help up today can be traced back to the 10th century.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi (energy) is required to essential to life, both physical and spiritual. Women also lose a lot of Qi during pregnancy and labor. This disturbance in the flow of Qi can cause many disharmonies in the body.
Deficiency of Qi and blood lead to tiredness and fatigue, which will make the immune system very susceptible to disease. If Qi and blood is not recovered, it may lead to many serious problems which might manifest early or years later.
An old Chinese saying : 產前補胎，產後顧月內 “Take care of the baby during pregnancy; take care of postpartum after giving birth.”
The balance between yin and yang in the body must be restored by consuming food classified as yang (such as chicken, ginger or eggs). New moms are supposed to avoid cold water, as well as bamboo shoots and turnips which are all considered yin. Other restrictions during Zuo Yuezi since ancient times include going outside, bathing, or brushing teeth. Scholars have speculated that these last two prohibitions arose at periods in time when water was likely to carry diseases.
Wind and cold need to be avoided during Zuo Yuezi and all foods need to be fully cooked, warm and bland. Protein-rich foods are cooked for the new mother to recover energy levels, and help shrink the uterus and for the perineum to heal. This is also important for the production of breastmilk. Sometimes, new mothers only begin to consume special herbal foods after all the lochia is fully discharged.
A common traditional Zuo Yuezi dish is pork knuckles with ginger and black vinegar as pork knuckles are believed to help replenish calcium levels in the women. Ginger is featured in many dishes, as it is believed that it can remove the 'wind' accumulated in the body during pregnancy. Meat-based soup broths are also commonly consumed to provide hydration and added nutrients. Fish and papaya soup is considered to help produce breastmilk.
Visitors are often barred as new moms should have as little distraction and exertion as possible; rest, eat, sleep and feed the new-born baby. In Southern Guangdong province and neighboring regions, new mothers are barred from visitors until the baby is 12 days old, marked by a celebration called 'Twelve mornings' (known as 十二朝). From this day onwards, Cantonese families with a new baby usually share their joy through giving away food gifts, while some families mark the occasion by paying tribute to their ancestors.
There are many programs or stages for the Zuo Yuezi period available such as detoxification stage, replenish stage and rejuvenate stage. Zuo Yuezi is sometimes referred as the 4th trimester of the pregnancy (the after care).
Postpartum confinement ‘Lying-in’ in Western history
Although there is not much literature on postpartum confinement in Western societies, most of the confinement was determined by religion. The term ‘Lying-in’ used in English, now old-fashioned or archaic, was once used to name maternity hospitals, for example the General Lying-In Hospital in London.
A 1932 Canadian publication refers to lying-in as ranging from two weeks to two months. These weeks ended with the re-introduction of the mother to the community in the Christian ceremony of the churching of women.
Researchers have traced Latin American confinement Cuarentena’s history back to the Bible brought by European colonists. A passage in Leviticus stipulates 40 days of purification after the birth of a son (double for a daughter). As in menstruation, the woman is considered ritually unclean during this time and is barred from entering the sanctuary. In Europe and America, the “lying-in” period may have had the same roots, but that practice died out long ago.
Lying-in features in Christian art, notably Birth of Jesus paintings. One of the gifts presented to the new mother in Renaisssance Florence was a desco da parto, a special form of painted tray. Equivalent presents in contemporary culture include baby showers and push presents.
In Britain, special postpartum confinement foods included caudle, a restorative drink based on milk and eggs, like eggnog. Later variants were more similar to a gruel, a sort of drinkable oatmeal porridge. Caudle beverages were usually alcoholic. "Taking caudle" was a metonym for postpartum social visits.
Zuo Yuezi Today
Even though the environment, society and circumstances have dramatically changed since the end of the 19th century in China, the traditional Zuo Yuezi postpartum confinement is deeply rooted and applied by many new moms today.
Zuo Yuezi is not only for the physical recovery of new moms but there are important psychological and social motivations as well behind the tradition.
As any tradition, Zuo Yuezi has also undergone an evolution and changes in recent decades. Especially due to the environmental changes, many new moms will wash their bodies and hair during confinement but they usually dry immediately with hot towels to avoid getting a cold by wind or cool temperatures. The airconditioning is often turned on during simmering summer times or visitors are sometimes allowed. However the core of Zuo Yuezi remains; recover and rest in a safe, nutritious and pampering environment with as little distraction as possible.
It is also more about the celebration, praise and respect for the new mom and baby. There are as well many discussions and articles these days in China about the influence of Zuo Yuezi to minimize the risk of postnatal depressions as new mothers would not take sufficient time and rest to recover physically and mentally when they will too soon go back to daily society.
The current generation gap dynamics during Zuo Yuezi
Traditionally, the mother-in-law or mother takes care of their daughter after she has delivered. During the last three decades, Chinese society has changed dramatically and is still changing every day. This has made the generation gap of the new moms today and their parents immense in certain aspects.
As one can imagine, the generation gap can cause discrepancies in expectations, customs and beliefs of Zuo Yuezi between new moms and their mothers (especially mothers-in-law as can be predicted). Not so much on the purpose and philosophy but more regarding discussions and expectations on the daily practice and handlings.
Another drastic change is that different generations are living more and more apart. While the new generation has often moved to cities, parents continue to live in their hometowns which are often in rural areas hundreds or thousands of kilometers away.
Both phenomena have caused the emergence of a new sector in the market; the Zuo Yuezi care market.
The Luxury of Zuo Yuezi
Luxury 5 star-hotel-like Zuo Yuezi care centers have popped up all over China in recent decades where new moms, their baby and often their own mother or mother-in-law can reside during Zuo Yuezi or “sitting the month”. Supervised by doctors and nurses with customized diets, physical routines and mental programs in a luxury environment, the new moms and babies enjoy a luxury style Zuo Yuezi, fully managed and personalized to the new mom’s circumstances and budget.
Costs for a month sitting can rise up to USD 50,000 in some luxury care centers.
The social and familial side of Zuo Yuezi
A lesser discussed and known side on the purpose of Zuo Yuezi is the social and familial purpose.
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 new mom - 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, with respect to older generations.
The Zuo Yuezi period is important for the family members and immediate social environment to consider and readjust their positions and responsibilities as well as getting familiar with the new situation and having time to show respect and devotion before the family is fully going back to daily routine in society.
Especially in older times, a new mother is commonly living with her family-in-law and giving birth in the family-in-law has a great impact on the relations within the household including the new mother. She was responsible for continuing the bloodline in the family name.
Even though today, this familial importance is also upholding and keep being rooted in Chinese society just as the Zuo Yuezi but with a significant evolution, many changes and new social acceptances as well since recent decades.
坐月子 Zuo Yuezi "Sitting the Month" : Fascinating deep-rooted and ancient traditional values alive and kicking, adjusted to pragmatism and dynamics of today’s society and opportunities.
Beijing, September 2019. Gordon Dumoulin
Sources and pictures : sixth tone, wikipedia, unsplash, mother.ly, workingmother, baidu