Pork spine bone soup, donkey-hide jelly, sea cucumbers OH MY! A look inside the postpartum traditions of Chinese women

The other night, SBS aired a fascinating story on Dateline. China’s Supermums was a revealing and fascinating insight into the traditional Chinese custom of “confinement” when a new mother stays indoors for the entire first month after giving birth.

Not only does she not leave the house, but many women still adhere to the old customs of not showering, washing their hair or even brushing their teeth during this period.

Known as zuò yuè zi, “sitting the month” or “doing the month”, is a Chinese tradition that dates back 2000 years to the Han Dynasty. In the past two millenniums, society has abandoned countless traditions due to disconnects with or irrelevance to the so-called modern world. Yet somehow this specific one stubbornly survives.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) regards the body as a complete existence of (energy) and blood. Maintaining completeness is the first priority of all health-related theories and practices. While western medicine doesn’t treat childbirth as a condition that needs to be cured or given extensive weeks of added care, Chinese medicine believes the loss of blood and dramatic transformation of a woman’s body during the birth process results in a broken body of sorts requiring immediate replenishment. Left unaddressed, this fragility welcomes myriad long-term health problems.

The segment on Dateline highlighted how modern-day China has integrated this centuries-old tradition with contemporary life, especially in light of the ever-growing population of China’s independently wealthy nouveau riche.

Couples with money to spend, spend big time when it comes to the early postpartum period. Confinement Ladies (what we might call a postpartum doula) come to live with the couple for at least the first 30 days after a woman gives birth – some stay for up to two months. She will live with the family in order to care for the mother and the baby continuously. She will prepare all the food (according to strict traditional Chinese dietary rules), clean the home, bathe and dress the baby and wake up during the night so that the new mother can sleep.

A service like this can cost in the equivalent of US$2,600 for the month. That’s two-and-a-half times the average salary in Beijing.

For those families who prefer the glitz of a five-star hotel, there is that option too. Shanghai is at the centre of a growing trend – luxury hotels for women doing confinement. A month-long stay in one of these places will set you back as much as US$8,500.

While the images of nurses wearing surgical masks, and babies being cared for in large nurseries might seem strange – even unnatural to our Western eyes – it’s obvious that they genuinely care for the mother and baby.

Personally, I found the segment to be a really fascinating insight into contemporary China. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, having spent the first 23 years of my life there. As a baby, I was cared for by my beloved amah, Lo Ching, who practically became my de-facto grandmother. Once I started solids, Lo Ching insisted on making me congee (traditional Chinese rice soup with meat or fish and vegetables), despite my mother’s protestations that perhaps I should be eating mashed banana or some other familiar first baby food. Lo Ching dismissed this crazy Western notion and convinced my mother in her broken English, “Congee good for baby missy.”

While some of the Confinement traditions may seem overly restrictive, I don’t think there is a new mother anywhere on earth that would not say “yes please” to having someone care for her and her new baby day and night during those first difficult weeks.

While there is no doubt that having a baby is a joyous and wonderful thing, those early days of being a new parent can be really tough. Personally, I think we could learn a thing or two from traditions of the past. Donkey hide jelly anyone?

Tanya Strusberg is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and founder of birthwell birthright, an independent childbirth education practice based in Melbourne. In 2015, Tanya was inducted as an FACCE (Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators) in recognition of her significant contribution to childbirth education. Through her internationally accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators.

Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.