What’s the Deal With Sitting the Month

In what is an archaic practice, many Chinese women face tough times after giving birth

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Giving birth is tough, no doubt, but for Chinese women things are even tougher. First, they are told it is safer to have a caesarian than give birth naturally (not true), with nearly 50 percent of women having children this way, and then they are encouraged to go through a month-long period of near solitary confinement where they are supposed to do nothing but sit in bed, bundled up from head to toe in clothes. Oh the joy!

In Chinese culture postpartum care, “sitting the month” (zuoyuezi) is considered necessary to restoring the balance of ying and yang. Traditional Chinese Medicine dictates that childbirth leads to great loss of energy or qi during labor which, when you think about it, is already irrelevant for half the women anyway.

On top of this, there are a series of intense restrictions on freedom, diet, personal hygiene, and lifestyle, all formed over thousands of years of feudal thinking. It can be very frustrating for new mothers. Under the supervision and authority of other family members, especially meddlesome mother-in-laws, saying no to these rules can cause unwanted trouble and is an extra burden on exhausted mothers. So they, quite literally, sit it out, and thus old-fashioned traditions are maintained.

The earliest record of the practice of sitting the month come from the Book of Rites over 2,000 years ago, where it was described less as a TCM practice but more as a ceremonial ritual, whereby the new mother must go through this ritual to symbolize her new role moving from a wife to mother, from stranger to member of the family.

Under the supervision and authority of other family members, especially meddlesome mother-in-laws, saying no to these rules can cause unwanted trouble and is an extra burden on exhausted mothers.

The list of things that those sitting the month are not allowed to do is lengthy. Firstly the washing of hair, brushing of teeth, and even direct contact with the wind is restricted. The idea is that, post-labor, women become very cold and any lowering of temperature can cause harm. Going out is forbidden, even in summer, and showers and baths are restricted too. Crying and sex are also off the menu, with women needing to avoid emotional up and downs. Using scissors and knives are banned, with even sewing considered too risky an activity for these delicate new mothers.

The risk of cold means the inverse is encouraged, and women have to keep warm, particularly around their joints and neck–thick pajamas, long sleeves, hats, socks and scarves are de rigueur—Chinese women thus often look like little Eskimos hobbling around the house.

This obsession with cold extends to diet, and no cold water, salt, raw vegetables, fruits, coffee, alcohol, or spicy food are allowed, and the new mother should not have any cool or even room-temperature food. All fruits and vegetables must be cooked and an extremely bland diet is recommended—the whole thing is a terrible bore. Though the diet is dull, it is somewhat spiced up by the daily drinking of a vinegar-based soup of ginger and pigs; trotters, as it is believed this drives away dampness and promotes the circulation of blood and qi. Additionally, the pigs’ feet are believed to be rich in calcium and protein, and thus promote lactation.

Even the most educated of Chinese women invariable follow this most miserable of customs, due to fear of the dreaded yuezibing, a loose term in TCM that covers all various illnesses that can be formed or women are susceptible to when sitting the month. It is believed these diseases will never ever heal, and thus it is very important to sit the month, as an old Chinese saying goes,: “Eat well, sleep well, nothing is better than sitting the month well.” It is unclear to what extent Chinese women believe all this medieval claptrap, but when told their health is at risk they just get on with it, generally thinking it better not to take any risks.

Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, Chinese women are beginning to cast off some of the more nonsensical rules such as the abandoning of all salt in their diet and not brushing their teeth. Some of the more modern TCM practitioners are beginning to see through it all and move away from such outmoded thinking. Perhaps in the future, Chinese will be able to abandon these old-wives talks and get the rest they need on their own terms.