"For 30 days after I gave birth to my son, I was kept away from all housework, and everyone treated me like a queen—an old, incapacitated queen," says Yan Zhang, a 32-year-old new mom in Beijing. Like all women in China, following delivery, Yan was required to zuo yuezi, an age-old tradition which loosely translates as "sitting the month."
The logic behind yuezi is that the female body is fragile after giving birth and requires special care, rest, and nutrition. Present in Chinese culture for thousands of years—it is rumored to be mentioned in the 2000-year-old divination text known as the I-Ching, or Book of Changes—yuezi is a practice that is still staunchly enforced by elders and widely practiced across China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Traditionally, mothers-in-law are tasked with enforcing the rules of yuezi, which in their most draconian form require that postpartum moms refrain from bathing, washing their hair, brushing their teeth, or going outdoors for a period of 30 days. Instead, they must stay in bed covered from head to toe—socks and a hat, regardless of the season—and eat six meals a day. These meals should consist primarily of eggs, soup, pork trotters (pig's feet), chicken, or carp, and food should be warm (forget ice cream), cooked (not even raw fruit), and prepared without salt.
Yan reports that despite the limitations on what she could eat or do, yuezi for her was "quite a happy time," as she was the center of her family's attention. She had given birth to a son—still largely the prized gender in China—and she was reassured to learn that for her husband, her healthy recovery was just as important as celebrating the arrival of the new heir. "My main tasks were to eat, rest, and produce milk," she says, "everything else was taken care of.
Unlike most new moms in China, Yan was fortunate to have her own mother oversee her yuezi, which is less common but considered largely preferable to going through the process with a mother-in-law, who may or may not show mercy and be willing to bend the rules. When Yan's mother gave birth to Yan, for instance, her mother-in-law required that she wait weeks before brushing her teeth or bathing. Yan, in contrast, brushed as usual, and she had her first shower after eight days—the time it took for the incision from her C-section to be reasonably healed. As she gave birth in January, Yan explains that it was less of a challenge to hold off bathing or to keep warm from head to toe, though she suspects (and her mother agrees) that these rules were more important to follow in the times when most households in China didn't have access to hot water, heat, or hair dryers.
In a sign that some yuezi traditions are being modified to incorporate modern comforts, some hospitals now even turn on the air conditioning for moms who give birth in the summer—in China, the ideal temperature for a newborn baby is said to be between 26 and 28 degrees Celsius (about 79 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit)—but these changes have not been uniform, and strict adherence to tradition has resulted in at least a few tragic outcomes. This past August, a woman in Shanghai died of heatstroke after being wrapped tightly in a thick quilt following labor, and several months prior, another new mom died of pulmonary artery thrombosis due to restricted movement during yuezi.
Still, many women in China continue to respect some form of yuezi, which is so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that it is even present in the diaspora—there are "yuezi centers" in Queens and Los Angeles where women abroad can respect postpartum traditions just as if they were in China. If a new mom prefers to observe yuezi in her own home, there are even US-based companies, like Jing Mommy and Meal4Mom, that prepare meals with yuezi staples such as pork liver, red dates, sesame oil, and rice wine, which can be prepared and delivered daily for upwards of $2,000 per month.
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