Li Xuan Qi ( whose English name is Mary) was looking longingly at the huge fruit basket I brought over to her home. This sinful temptation sat on the table, its contents comprised of crisp Asian pears, juicy tangerines, tasty apples, and plump purple grapes. I could imagine her ecstasy in digging into that basket and savoring every fruity bite, but she had yet to wait three more days . . . three more days of the 40-day “sentence” placed upon her by the customs of China for new mothers.
Despite China’s great leaps and bounds in Western approaches to everything from industrialization to lifestyle, some age-old customs die hard. One of these concerns pregnancy, and it was this particular visit to Mary’s home that certainly was proving to be an eye-opener for me when it comes to China.
Mary (a high school English teacher) is the wife of my good friend, “Marty” Li, an English teacher at the vocational college I taught at in Luzhou. The couple had been married for 3 years and just had their first child, a healthy little girl.
The excitement and joy of Marty at having a little girl was apparent from day one when he announced at our English departmental meeting that his wife had just given birth. For him, the birth marked the happiness of Daddy shopping for clothes, toys, baby blankets and what-not. For the new mother, however, the arrival of the little one began an agonizingly long imprisonment on the fourth floor of their bare, dank and stuffy concrete-walled faculty apartment.
According to Chinese custom, new mothers are to begin a long internment in the confines of their home after giving birth. For 40 days, they are not allowed to go out. They can’t eat fruit or certain vegetables. No cold foods are allowed, only hot ones, and those are limited to bland chicken and fresh eggs, boiled in broth. Mary couldn’t fully wash herself, only sponge off, and under no circumstances was she to wash her hair for fear of catching a cold. Her attire was that of a flannel cap (worn at all times), flannel PJs and warm winter slippers. Late August temperatures had soured into the 90’s. Their small flat had no air conditioner but even if it did, I doubt she’d have been allowed to use it. The Chinese don’t like continuously cooled rooms due to electricity costs. They also believe it’s not good for the health to be constantly coming and going from one extreme temperature to another. Sickness will result.
Thus Mary had to remain in her invalid-style state, warmly enclosed in clothing certainly meant for chillier weather, and suffer under a sizzling Sichuan heatwave.
When I first visited Marty and Mary to see the new baby girl, it was after I had returned from America for the summer holidays. I had no idea about the customs she was patiently enduring until I arrived. Under the watchful eye of her mother and mother-in-law (two women from small towns), she was being well cared for. Both were diligently making sure traditions were not broken. Despite being a modern young woman with a high education, Mary decided it was better to please the new grandmothers by following their commands rather than annoying them by doing as she pleased.
As many dutiful Chinese children, she and her husband borrowed 2 beds for the customary long stay of the grandmothers to look after the new mother and baby for the 40-day period. Forty days is required to make sure the new mother remains, if not happy, at least healthy so that she will have a strong, uneventful recovery.
Years ago, when Chinese women’s lives were filled with constant hard work under very poor conditions, these 40 days were a blessing. Renewing a mother’s strength was of utmost importance for her survival. But with advanced medical technology and the comforts of today’s modern world, one does wonder if this tradition will eventually be adjusted to meet the needs of today’s busy, working Chinese mom or done away with all-together.
While watching the grandmothers fuss over Mary and baby, I wondered how this poor woman could stand it. She was not allowed to do anything. No cooking, cleaning or even performing basic duties in looking after the baby. Watching T.V. was acceptable for a bit but her eyes would not be good, according to her mother, so it was best to limit that. Working on the computer was likewise something to be monitored. Cell phones are owned by everyone in China but for new mothers, those have to be put aside with the rumors that they cause cancer. Why it was OK for her to use them at any other time in her life except for those 40 days was beyond me. My guess is on that point, there was no arguing with Mom and mother-in-law. If they said no cell phone use, then no cell phone use it was.
For the most part, Mary just lived in boredom. She took numerous naps and watched Grandma Li constantly rocking the child, Grandma Fu changing diapers, or Marty (the proud papa) freely coming and going from their apartment while she was stuck inside.
The true pampering period for Chinese mothers takes place during pregnancy, when women begin their 3 to 4-month maternity leaves six weeks prior to delivery. Pushy passengers on overly crowded buses are quick to part way for a pregnant citizen and offer up their seat for her. Open-air market sellers hold back the best of meats and vegetables and cheerfully offer these to their pregnant patrons. I have often seen some sellers refusing to take money from the soon-to-be mother. Instead, they thrust produce into her hands, give advice or suggestions about preparing these for her health and, with a kind smile, wave her away. And when it comes to attire, anything goes. It’s not unusual to see women at different stages of pregnancy, dressed in floaty nightgowns, fuzzy slippers and pajamas, strolling down sidewalks, shuffling through grocery store aisles, or shopping in department stores.
Soon-to-be moms know to enjoy such freedom and special treatment before birth as it’s not coming afterwards.
As I watched Mary sitting on the couch, I thought these last 3 days must seem like an eternity.
“Can’t you just forget the last few days and cheat?” I asked. “Surely leaving now can’t cause any problems.”
Mary hesitated. She eyed the grandmothers, one rocking the baby and another starting to prepare yet another wearisome chicken and egg soup meal for lunch. Marty was on the little balcony where 6 live chickens were clucking and pecking about in fowl filth. The grandmothers had insisted that keeping live chickens to fatten them up is better than getting the scrawny ones in the market. Marty’s duty each day was to kill one, which was not his favorite thing to do.
After observing the activities around her for a bit longer, Mary returned to my question about disregarding the last days of her confinement.
“No,” she said. “It’s best to follow the customs.”
I couldn’t help but ask the next question.
“So when your daughter is having a baby, years from now, will you insist she follow these same traditions?”
Mary was quick to respond.
“Of course,” Mary replied, “my daughter is free to do as she wishes.”
I nodded my approval, thinking, “Ah! A truly modern Chinese woman. Good for you!”
Then Mary continued.
“But . . . . maybe I will advise her that some old customs are more important than new ones.”
In other words, the answer was “Yes.”
From Chengdu, wishing you “Ping An!” (peace) for the end of the week.
AS ALWAYS, REMINDER THAT EARTHQUAKE RELIEF FUNDS NEEDED
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake
Others: The Amity Foundaiton (www.amityfoundation.org)