Last Wednesday the world got its first glimpse of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor – Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s first child. Swaddled in a cream blanket and wearing a white cap – the baby boy slept through his first three-minute media call.
But audiences in China were less interested in the child – seventh in line to the British throne – and more intrigued by Markle, who donned high heels and a sleeveless dress to meet journalists.
“This woman is amazing. Two days after giving birth I was still in bed,” marvelled one. “How is she up, walking and in heels?” asked another.
This is not the first time Britain’s new royal baby and mother has caused a stir in China (see WiC203). Chinese were also shocked when the Duchess of Cambridge appeared outdoors so soon after her births. That’s because in China women traditionally stay inside for a month after giving birth in a practice known as zuo yuezi or literally “sitting the month”.
Yuezi, it turns out, is a big business opportunity. Indeed, as China gets richer more women are now spending their confinement month in specialised post-partum centres, which have round-the-clock medical staff and kitchens to prepare special, nutritious yuezi foods.
A promotional video for one chain called Care Bay in Beijing, where a month-long stay can cost up to $45,000, shows a new mother arriving at an opulent Italianate-style building – dressed in a big winter coat and wearing a face mask. She is immediately put in a wheelchair and taken to her room – which looks much like that of a five-star hotel.
The video goes on to show the head chef preparing various soups – a key element of the yuezi diet – with the guidance of a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) expert. The mother is also filmed being taught lullabies.
Another ad for a chain of centres called Jubilee Pavilion says their nurses are “angels in white full of infinite love” and shows a new mother getting a facial at one of its in-house spas.
The origin of zuo yuezi is difficult to trace but during China’s older agrarian society, when most had to labour in the fields, the idea was to help the women recover after child birth. The act of stopping her from going outside, or washing, meant she wouldn’t be as exposed to the cold or infection.
However – as in other cultures – some believe the practice also had a purification element in China. Women were considered unclean after giving birth because their bodies continued to emit blood for up to a month afterwards. Only when they stopped bleeding could they reengage with their community.
What is amazing, perhaps, is that the practice endures, despite the arrival of Western medicine in the nineteenth century and the rigours of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – which attempted, among other things, to eradicate China’s traditions and superstitions.
According to the Shenzhen market research company Qianzhan, in 2017 up to 95% of Chinese women practiced yuezi after giving birth with a growing proportion now opting go to professional centres.
When a woman ‘sits the month’ at home her parents or in-laws will usually move in to make food, look after the baby and enforce the yuezi rules. Sociologists say this proximity allows the family to adjust to the arrival of a new child as an extended group. If a woman hasn’t had a baby before, it marks her transition from wife to mother, and the shift in the overall family order.
The older generation are there to show their appreciation and to pass on family traditions by caring for her.
Yet all this can be very stifling for new mothers and there has been some research suggesting that confinement and the lack of autonomy contributes to higher-than-normal levels of post-natal depression. Another report on the effects of zuo yuezi found that women had reduced cardiovascular health after a month of inactivity.
Over the past 15 years or so, another trend has been to hire an external party deemed more expert to supervise a domestic yuezi experience. These confinement nurses have seen their fees for a month’s work double in recent years, with those women who have worked for billionaire families or celebrities enjoying rock star-like status.
So what exactly are the rules of zuo yuezi? The practice varies from region to region. Some new mothers wear warm pyjamas, thick socks and even hats to prevent them from being exposed to the cold air. Some don’t wash or even brush their teeth. The gastronomy of yuezi foods and TCM drinks is even more complicated. Iron-rich foods, such as stewed pigs trotters and livers, are often preferred. In general, a woman is also discouraged from physical exertion – including carrying the baby too much (an excess of cuddling is thought likely to make the child needy). Some women complain that their parents – or in-laws – even prevent them from opening their fridges in the first month, lest the blast of cold air give them life-long health problems, such as arthritis or rheumatism.
The obsession with keeping the new mother warm during this period has even led to deaths: in July 2017 a woman died from heatstroke because her family refused to turn on the air conditioning during her confinement and made her stay in bed under a heavy quilt.
Women have written online that they had to negotiate with their relatives for the right to wash themselves or open the window. One said her mother only allowed her to wash using a flannel and with water boiled with ginger. Another said her granny had told her off for using her cell phone because she believed the screen could damage her eyes in her weakened state.
“Going to a yuezi centre can help you avoid family conflict,” said one woman on the question-and-answer platform Zhihu. The centres also offer a slightly more modern take on the ‘sit the month’ tradition. There are yoga classes and beauty salons where women can get their hair done. And some even have swimming pools.
According to some clients the best thing about the professional centres is that they have set visiting hours, meaning the family can only drop in at certain times, and there are doctors to push back against some of the more antiquated parental notions, if need be.
There are also nurses to teach techniques like breastfeeding and nannies to teach swaddling and modern parenting methods.
“Yuezi is the best time to tell a new father and mother how to raise children and to turn them into qualified parents,” Cao Wei, the chairman of Care Bay says.
In 2017 – shortly after the universal two-child policy was introduced – market research firm Qianzhan estimated the professional yuezi industry could be worth as much as Rmb32 billion by 2022. However, the birth rate has not increased by as much as some – including the government – had hoped and in 2018 Qianzhan reduced its projection to Rmb17 billion by 2023 (up from about Rmb10 billion today).
For those that can’t afford to stay at such yuezi centres there are also a series of pink, princess-style smartphone apps to help guide Chinese mothers through the process.
But they’ll have to get them past their granny to use them. n
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