What We Can Learn From The Chinese Tradition Of Zuo Yue Zi

by Wendy Wisner
Kohei Hara / Getty Images

What struck me after my first son was born was just how quickly I was supposed to function again as a normal and productive member of society. Even just a few days after he was born, I was expected to host visitors, answer the phone, make meals, and go to doctor appointments.

All this while I was still bleeding from my vagina, my uterus was hanging somewhere precariously in my pelvis, and my breasts were two giant balloons, leaking milk on every surface imaginable. And let’s not forget the fact that my baby cried anytime he wasn’t in someone’s arms, so I was learning how to do literally everything with a crying, pooping, spitting up little creature attached to me 24/7.

In our world, women get almost no respite or care during the postpartum period. Forget about time to recuperate physically and emotionally. Forget about some moments to bond with your baby. Besides the fact that most women have almost no help postpartum, many are ushered back to work when their babies are just a few weeks old.

It’s a damn shame, and I can’t help but think it contributes to things like postpartum depression, and the alarmingly high maternal mortality rate, which includes preventable complications that occur in the postpartum period.

The way we treat postpartum moms in our culture is a mess, which is why we could all learn something from the way that moms have been treated postpartum in many traditional cultures around the world. Take the ancient Chinese tradition of zuo yue zi, or “sitting in” that has been practiced for centuries.

It’s true that certain aspects of the practice may sound confining, and just plain antiquated to some of us. But much of it is downright refreshing, and there are features of zuo yue zi we could all learn from, and perhaps even incorporate into our own postpartum periods.

In a fascinating interview in Time Out, Dr. Zhou Yan, Associate Chief Physician at Beijing Xiyuege International Puerpera and Infant Care Center in Beijing, explains the ins and outs of the ancient practice.

“The earliest written records of postnatal customs are from the pre-Qin period, over 2,000 years ago,” explains Dr. Yan. “The records call zuo yue zi ‘the month inside’, and it was the Qin’s way of demonstrating the respect held for women’s position in society.”

And although Dr. Yan says that the practice has fallen out of favor with many modern-day mothers, it has not been forgotten, with many mothers still taking that month after birth to sit in confinement—and be pampered to bits.

But it’s not just about a woman being celebrated and cared for. Dr. Yan and other proponents of the practice believe it has real benefits for a mother’s and infant’s health during postpartum, and beyond.

Besides placing restriction on a mother’s activity during the month, which Dr. Yan believes can help a mother’s pelvis and uterus heal from birth, women are given strict dietary restrictions (traditional foods rich in calcium, iron and protein) as well as rules pertaining to bathing and general hygiene.

For example, women practicing zuo yue zi are prohibited from showering, washing their hair, or brushing their teeth for that month. And while that may sound absurd to many of us, it is a tradition that made more sense in ancient times, and that most mothers now are choosing to forego while still following the other rules of zuo yue zi.

“This old practice was followed due to a lower quality of life back then,” Dr. Yan clarifies. “These practices are not good from a hygiene prospective, and we don’t recommend you follow them. It seems during this period there are a lot of ‘don’ts’ for new mums: don’t get out of bed, don’t cry, don’t read a book or watch TV, don’t use a fan.”

In addition to interviewing Dr. Yan, Time Out interviewed a modern-day Beijing woman who practiced zuo yue zi after the birth of her two children. See Kay Leong, who is Head of Admissions at Dulwich College Beijing, says that she practiced zuo yue zi at the urging of her mother and mother-in-law.

“I didn’t wash my hair for more than two weeks and when I finally did, it was with special water boiled with Chinese herbs,” Leong tells Time Out. “I showered every couple of days with the herbal water. I ate warming foods and special Singaporean confinement dishes, like chicken cooked in rice wine with lots of ginger and pig trotters with dark sweet vinegar. I had never had so much pig’s liver in my life!”

I think I would definitely need to stay away from the pig’s liver, personally. But for many women who consume these exotic dishes, the benefits are strong, with many saying the foods help with their milk supply and aid in their body’s post-birth recovery.

Leong shares that the most beneficial aspect of the experience was the yuesao (live-in assistant) she hired to help her with the baby and to cook those special meals for her. As for what she would have changed, Leong says should could have lived without some of the hygiene practices she was made to follow.

“I wished I could have a showered more frequently, and I felt silly having to wash my hands with hot water all the time,” she told Time Out.

Still, all in all, she would recommend this practice—or one like it—to all new mothers. “[D]o not follow the practices blindly. Do what makes sense and what you are comfortable with,” says Leong.

Now, even if moms of today were to find a way to make zuo yue zi compatible with our modern-day sensibilities, I would be totally remiss not to point out that the majority of mothers in our society simply do not have the time, means, or support to pull something like that off. Our maternity leave practices are laughable and often non-existent. And for most of us, hired help is basically a pipe dream.

But the point is that things should not be this way, and if there is any way that you can make something like zuo yue zi happen for you, you totally should. And you should support your fellow new moms in doing the same.

Moms deserve so much better during the postpartum period, and we all should be pampering them as much as humanely possible.