THE BLOG

Confinement: An Ancient Chinese Tradition

22/06/2015 17:17 BST | Updated 22/06/2016 10:59 BST

Born and bred in China, I'm fully acquainted with Chinese ways and customs. But every time I give birth here (twice so far) I have to be prepared to battle with my family and friends, particularly from my mother's generation.

These 'aunties' use every scare tactic they can think of to sell me on a traditional Chinese practice called confinement.

Confinement is an ancient tradition that is still widely practiced in China today. Dating back to the Xihan dynasty some 2000 years ago, confinement literally means in Mandarin "sitting out the month". In practice, it's a set of very complex rules for women to care for themselves during the first month after giving birth.

Different places across China have different rules - but basically there are a few must do's. First, you have to eat special confinement food - to stimulate breast milk and restore the body's energy and balance. It's all about the yin and yang. Then you have to keep warm - never going outside for the whole month and wrapping yourself in layers, socks, beanies and gloves, even in summer. And finally, avoiding coming into contact with water - that means no showers - not even brushing your teeth.

Each time I was pregnant my mum and 'aunties' would bring out the big guns - telling me in explicit detail about the illnesses they swear they suffer from as a result of not doing confinement properly. Nagging headaches, severe joint pain and worsening back problems years down the road - all the result, they told me, of cutting corners in confinement.

At one point I almost gave in to the pressure - thinking maybe I should stick to my "cultural roots" and be a real Chinese mum who does the "right thing" but the thought of not brushing my teeth or showering quickly put an end to that thought. Looking around at other new mum's who struggled to swallow litres of pig feet soup and Chinese carp coup while being cooped up and over-heated, I decided confinement rituals were not for me.

My mum said she respected my decision but still she worried. After my first daughter was born, mum was concerned that I could get sick from showering when I was so weak after giving birth - and that it would leave me with agonizing pain in my joints in years to come. I argued "if that's why people in your generation have so many joint and back problems, then Dad must not have done a proper confinement!"

But Mum wouldn't give up. She said that at least I could drink pork bone soup to ensure the intake of calcium. I looked online and found research studies to show her that there is barely any calcium in bone soups. But of course, she was quick to point out that looking online during confinement means my eyes will suffer when I get older.

Under her advice, if I didn't stay in bed doing nothing but eating strange things, then anything that could go wrong in my life would go wrong - and it would all be because I didn't do confinement properly.

My mother's only comfort after my first child was born, was that she would have a chance to change my mind when the next baby was on the way. But I didn't come around, quietly thinking that I will show her how I can do my own style of 'confinement' and still be healthy and active.

Today, I am seven months pregnant with my third child, and recently mum said to me, "I was almost waiting for something to go wrong, but it looks like you are actually doing pretty well not sitting out the month."

I guess that's mum's way of saying, times have changed.

Follow this link to watch Al Jazeera's episode on 'China's Supermums'.