Zuo yuezi- Sit the Month

1 May 2010

The depth at which Chinese medicine permeates Taiwanese culture becomes clear when we look at people's awareness of what they can do to maintain or restore their good health, and to the health practices that many follow. This is particularly true of women. Women who have no specific medical training have told me that: “we have three opportunities in our lives to change our constitution for the better: the time when we start menstruating, the period after childbirth and that of menopause”.

Today I would like to look at the second of these windows and at the traditional practices that women follow during the four to six weeks after childbirth when they zuo yue zi, which can be literally translated as “sit the month”.

During labour and childbirth women expend an incredible amount of energy and lose plenty of blood and body fluids. Immediately after they have to start meeting the needs of the new born, whom they breastfeed and who might keep them up at night. They may already have other children who also need tending. At this time the new mother's life undergoes a complete reorganization, and so does her physiology.

In the west, new mothers often complain of exhaustion, low spirits (post-natal depression), backache, being unable to shed off the extra weight accumulated during pregnancy, loose abdominal muscles, weak digestion and other symptoms.

In Taiwan, these problems seem to be a lot less common.

Why sit the month and how is it done?

One of the key words is rest

The new mother does not leave the house for the four to six weeks after giving birth. She does not lift weights nor bathe her child/children and she does not engage in house chores. Her mother and sisters can help with all the above or professional women can be engaged if family members cannot help. The new mother is encouraged to spend as much time as possible lying down, both in order to simply rest and to allow her inner organs to reposition themselves — in time this will prevent a possible prolapse of the uterus or other organs.

A great attention is paid to food and drink intake

New mothers are not supposed to drink any water — or actually any other liquid - with the exception of rice-wine water, which is the water obtained from boiling rice wine and condensing its steam.

No fruit of cold nature (such as oranges or pears) are to be eaten, but fruit that is warm in nature is allowed (for examples grapes).

All food should be cooked with plenty of ginger and sesame oil, which warm up and strengthen the digestive system. No salt can be used so as not to burden the kidneys.

In order to drive toxins out of her body, in the first week the woman only eats rice and pork liver (that's for each of her three meals). No vegetables are eaten at this stage.

After this cleanse, tonification of the body can begin. During the second week the diet is based on rice and pork kidneys — to support the woman's kidneys. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys represent the foundation of one's constitutional strength and play a key role in reproduction. From a Chinese medicine perspective they are bound to be depleted after childbirth.

From the third week vegetables and chicken are introduced (particularly ma you ji chicken cooked in rice wine, ginger and sesame oil). Chinese tonic herbs are also cooked in with the food, especially if there is a need to supplement production of breast milk.

Protecting oneself from wind and drafts

According to Chinese medicine, the pores of a new mother are very open and her qi is weakened, so she needs to pay particular attention to not letting herself “be invaded by wind”. In common western terms this can correspond to either catching a cold or to the onset of one of the painful syndromes that can affect the joints. So for the whole month she should not wash her hair (some people put talcum powder on their head to absorb the oil and then remove it with a fine tooth comb, others just wait). In a stricter version of the rules for sitting the month bathing is also forbidden, and the woman is only allowed to wipe her body clean using a damp towel. The use of fans and air conditioning (otherwise a must in every house in Taiwan during the stifling summer months) is also to be avoided.

Supporting the womb

Besides lying down, an important practice to help the abdomen and womb go back to their original shape is that of taking a long band of cloth and wrapping it tightly around one's abdomen and waist. If done constantly during the post-partum period, this can also bring tone to an abdomen that was flaccid and protruding before the pregnancy.

Protect the eyes, the brain and the mind

Studying and even reading are to be avoided during this time. The same applies to watching TV. New mothers often experience a decline in eyesight, memory and ability to concentrate, and they should rest their sense organs and brain in order to recuperate. Listening to the radio is allowed. To protect the mind — in its broad sense — emotional stimulation should also be avoided and a peaceful calm environment is to be maintained in the house.

I asked a Taiwanese friend what is the percentage of women who sit the month and she said that all new mothers do, but not everybody follows each of the rules to the letter. And of course there are also regional variations.

Choices are generally made before the start of this period and then adhered to. For example some women think that the interdiction to washing one's hair made sense in a time when hair-driers didn't exist and now can be let go of, whereas others believe that also the “wind” generated by these appliances can be harmful. Some women think that a quick shower can do no harm and only avoid bathing.

I have heard older women who suffer of poor digestion, joint pain or other ailments attribute the cause of their weakened health to “not having sat the month properly” some 20 to 40 years previously. Mothers always urge their daughters to take this time seriously and follow the rules scrupulously.

On the other hand, having sat the month, women report feeling energised and losing the extra weight.

Of course, living in a traditional society where family members live close-by and family ties are strong makes it easier for a new mother to take this time for herself. But in Taiwan, if help is not available within the family, people will pay a professional to come and cook food for the family, prepare special food for the new mother, wash the baby and take charge of all the house chores. There are even private clinics where women can go and spend four to six weeks with their new born and have all their needs catered for.

by Paola Campanelli

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