What Chinese Medicine Has to Teach Us About New Mothers

Pregnant women attend to a seminar on confinement practices and tasting of postpartum foods at I-San House.Vanessa Hua

In a strip mall in the heart of Silicon Valley, the pregnant ladies were seeking out ancient Chinese cures.

Bellies low and wide, bellies high and round, the women packed into I-San House, sampling bitter chicken and goji berry soup and a tongue-tingling drink of boiled ginger and dates, traditional Chinese dishes to aid in recovery after childbirth. 

In the month after delivery, Chinese women are said to be at their most vulnerable, weakened by labor and blood loss. To heal, they confine themselves at home for 30 days, in a process known as zuo yuezi, or “doing the month.” They stay in bed and slurp down pig knuckles stewed in wine and vinegar, and drink stinking herbal concoctions to flush out the body and increase the production of breast milk. Tradition prohibits visitors, baths, going outside, using fans or air conditioners, sexual activity, brushing teeth, eating raw foods, reading, or crying—as though they were living in the Ming Dynasty, without the benefit of indoor plumbing, clean hot water, or modern medicine.

Research on confinement suggests that it has some benefits, as well as costs. Even in an era of rapid social change, the practice of confinement has

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