Superstition still guides women’s health in China

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When I lived in China, my female colleagues introduced me to a number of “rules” regarding what one should or shouldn’t do during that certain time of the month. Then there were even more rules for when a woman has a baby.

Many of these folk beliefs seemed ridiculous from my American perspective. I laughed them off and continued to eat my ice cream despite whatever havoc its yin energy might wreak on my menstrual system.

Yet some of these superstitions are no laughing matter. A woman in Shandong province died this summer while following the traditions of “sitting through the month” after childbirth. Below, I will explore some of the most prevalent Chinese practices relating to periods, pregnancy, and the month after birth, ranging from the harmless to the hazardous.

While it is important to respect a culture’s local customs, when it comes to women’s bodies, scientifically backed health ramifications must also be taken into account.

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The most common taboo I heard regarding the monthly visit from Aunt Flo was against eating cold foods. Cold refers not just to the food’s actual temperature (like ice cream), but also to its designation in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

TCM organizes food in several different ways, including temperature, yin vs yang, flavors, associated organs, and “movements”.

Cold and cool foods, usually characterized by things that grow in relatively earthier and darker environments, are considered to embody yin energy. Eating these foods while your body is already high in yin energy due to menstruation is believed to cause discomfort, cramps, and other ill effects. Sometimes, well-meaning Chinese friends may be quite vehement about protecting their laowai (foreign) sisters from this horrible fate.

(On a side note, ice cream and other cold foods are seen as bad news for everyone, male or female, during the winter and drinking cold water is right out all year around. The looks of horror on my friends’ faces when I broke these rules and somehow survived were quite entertaining. Though I must say I discovered quite the taste for hot water and am now a firm believer in its ability to sooth common-cold symptoms.)

Western women, on the other hand, are more likely to say that that time of month is exactly when we need ice cream the most. We tend to doubt that diet has much to do with menstrual discomfort and usually resort to heat packs or medicine instead.

One day, while I was at lunch with my co-workers in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, one of the women complained of particularly bad menstrual cramps. The other women went around the table suggesting various foods either to cut out or add to her diet in order to mitigate them. When it was my turn, I told her just to put a heat pack on it. The other women looked at me like I had three heads.

Chinese women consider themselves vulnerable during their periods, and thus take precautions such as resting more, making themselves comfortable, and avoiding particular foods. This level of concern inevitably increases when a woman has a baby.

There are numerous restrictions women place on themselves and one another during pregnancy, often enforced by the pregnant woman’s mother or mother-in-law. Some are shared by Westerners, such as the prohibition against lifting heavy things. Others are uniquely Chinese, such as the superstition that consuming dark liquids such as coffee or soy sauce will result in a darker-skinned baby (an undesirable trait in the highly colorist culture of China, which equates paleness with beauty). Some are highly controversial, such as the practice of wearing anti-radiation clothing.

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When I was in Beijing, I was curious about the ultra-stiff ultra-cutesy clothing I would see women wearing on the metro. It turns out these aprons or over-dresses were designed to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from electromagnetic waves coming from computers, mobile phones, and other technological devices.

Yet according to some reports, these dresses are ineffective at best, harmful at worst. Since they only cover the torso and upper legs, the rest of the body is still exposed and radiation can seep in through the openings. They may even act like a greenhouse, trapping the radiation that does get in and preventing it from getting back out, thus making any effects even worse.

On the other hand, most scientists have yet to conclude that radiation from everyday objects can cause harm to the humans around them.

Even after childbirth, women are subject to a strict regimen for the first month, a practice called zuoyuezi, or “sitting through the month”. Common customs often involve wearing long sleeves and trousers, sleeping under heavy covers, keeping the air-conditioning off, and so on, even if the outside temperature is high.

Fresh air and bathing or hair-washing are to be avoided, as it is believed that they can introduce disease. New mothers are discouraged from going outside and are generally isolated from society, much like the old Western practice of confinement.

These practices gained particular scrutiny when they caused the death of a young Shandong woman who passed away because of heatstroke and organ failure. She had been wearing warm clothes and made to rest under a heavy quilt in an un-air-conditioned room, despite the hot summer temperature of the air. It is hoped that her tragedy will lead others to question the practices they group up with and assess whether they still make sense in a modern age.

Not all women find the period of zuoyuezi to be an uncomfortable or dangerous time, however. In mainland China, Taiwan, and Chinese communities around the world, special luxury getaways are being marketed as the ultimate postpartum experience.

Combining TCM and modern science and commercialization, these postpartum centers offer services including specially prepared meals, classes on breast-feeding and bathing babies, moxibustion, lactation consultants, and spa treatments. Instead of being sequestered at home, young mothers can enjoy all the rest of confinement but under the care of professionals rather than family members.

But such pampering and care do not come cheap. A stay at one of these centers can cost as much as US$27,000 a month.

While this may be a little extravagant for some, it at least shows that there are ways to incorporate Chinese traditions into a modern lifestyle without risking one’s health.

Traditional Chinese medicine has brought us many great things, not all of which can be dismissed as nonsense. For example, the benefits of acupuncture and tai chi are gaining wide acceptance in the West, even if we still don’t fully understand them. Other cases, such as the proscription of certain foods at certain times, while not necessarily backed by science, do no harm.

Foreigners and Chinese should live and let live in these instances, showing respect for and interest in each other’s customs while continuing to do what makes best sense to them. Yet in cases where common sense and scientific reason tell us that a certain practice is dangerous, it is time to abandon or adapt it, regardless of its place in tradition.

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