Imagine not being allowed to go outside, have a shower or drink cold water for an entire month. It might sound like a kind of house arrest. But every year tens of millions of Chinese women submit to this willingly. This is the traditional Chinese practice of confinement during the month after childbirth, with some modern twists.
Many Westerners would undoubtedly find the practice of confining a new mother to bed for an entire month rather extreme, if not incredibly impractical – but indeed, this tradition remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many Chinese families.
On the other hand I’ve also met a number of young Chinese mothers who are reluctant, if not downright against the practice – often to the chagrin of their own mothers (a situation that often results in heated family arguments). It seems they, too, have trouble reconciling caution and custom with a fast-paced, 21st-century urban lifestyle.
Call it a generation gap, if you will – the zuo yue zi tradition, which is steeped in the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, evolved over the centuries when living and health conditions were very different from today and infant and maternal mortality rates were much higher. In many ways it is a holdover from the "bad-old days" before China’s post-industrial modernization (or, "kun nan ri zi" – 困难日子 – as many old-timers say) – in other words, it all made perfect sense back in the day.
Certainly much of what mothers – many of whom are only-children themselves – are expected to endure during the month (i.e. staying indoors 24/7, eating nothing but pork knuckle soup for weeks on end, not bathing, and in some cases, getting extremely short haircuts to account for not being able to wash your hair etc.) seems unnecessary, if not outright superstitious, in this day and age.
But given Beijing’s sketchy environment I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of taking it easy after having a baby wholesale. After all, for every Super-Mom out there who can brag about being up and at ’em mere days after giving birth, there are those (like my wife) who don’t exactly have iron-clad constitutions and would be better off having a rest in the cleaner confines of their homes after undergoing what often amounts to a major surgical procedure (namely, a C-section).
Perhaps what is most sensible for families with newborns is a less dogmatic approach (from either angle) – not every new mother can be expected to benefit from a month atrophying in bed, but not everyone is fit to go out rock climbing a week after giving birth either (which is what my older sister in Norway did, to mixed results).
As with most things, sensible moderation seems to be the key: If you think you can hack it, then by all means, get yourself up and running as soon you see fit; but if not, then I see nothing wrong with laying low for a few weeks at home or even paying to stay in a supervised center (but I’d suggest skipping that "no-bathing" rule).
Read Louisa Lim’s BBC article about her own zuo yue zi experience here.