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The Truth and Myth about Chinese Confinement http://rasamalaysia.com/the-truth-and-myth-about-chinese-confinement/
October 12th, 2010 64 Comments

The Truth and Myth about Chinese Confinement

Confinement Drink: Longan and Red Date Tea

Apologies that I have neglected my blogs and my dear readers, but it’s not without a good reason. As many of you have known, I recently gave birth to my son baby G, and have since been “sentenced” to a month-long Chinese birth confinement. As I am writing this post, I am eagerly counting down to the end of the confinement period, which is next Tuesday, Oct 19.

So, what is confinement, or 坐月?

According to the Chinese, a woman’s body is the weakest and most vulnerable to future ailments after childbirth, and thus a confinement period of at least 30-40 days will ensure great recovery and long term health. During confinement, the confining mother will have to observe, follow, and endure a series of taboos, traditional rituals, and consumed a strict confinement cuisine…

Confinement cuisine basically consists of heating ingredients: old ginger, sesame oil, wine, black vinegar, etc., which are used excessively in almost every confinement meal. Chinese herbs such as ginseng and dong qui (当归) are also vital tonics to help the body heal. Water is a no-no as it will cause water retention, hence hot drinks such as ginger & date tea and longan & date tea are prescribed. Wine such as DOM is indispensable even though there are debates that nursing mothers shouldn’t have wine as the wine passes to the milk.

Other than the above, certain dishes are must-have’s during the confinement period. The most common ones are ginger and black vinegar pig trotters (猪脚醋), sesame oil chicken (麻油鸡), pork liver and kidneys cooked with ginger and sesame oil, pig stomach soup, etc. The dishes also have to be consumed while hot/warm. Suffice it to say, confinement meals are not your regular day-to-day cooking, but a series of concoctions prepared the traditional way to nourish the body.

Chinese confinement also comes with a laundry list of taboos but the most unbearable of all to a confining mother is not being able to shower and wash the hair during the confinement period, which means an average of 30-40 days!!! In present day, it’s hard to fathom that such belief still exists but the contact of cold water is said to cause the penetration of “wind” (风) into the body, and will lead  to severe body ache and future ailment. (Just between you and me, let’s just say that I didn’t exactly follow this practice.)  The concept of “wind” also extends to not leaving the house during the confinement, no air-condition, no fan, no sleeveless top, etc. Precisely, the confining mother has to be wrapped up with layers of clothing, socks, and not to expose the body to the “wind.”

So, here you have it, a quick snapshot of what I am going through. I have to say that it’s an exceedingly challenging time for me as I am not 100% sold on the concept. I do believe that eating well is very important but when you are fed with sesame oil + ginger + wine every single day, it’s a completely different story. I miss my favorite seafood and sambal-laden dishes. I miss being normal, I guess, but I know in no time, I will be back to my regular lifestyle and eating my favorite food.

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64 comments... read them below or add one

  1. Lee says:

    I had been through confinement two times so I know how you feel. It will be over soon!!

  2. dhanes420 says:

    Oh, I’m so sorry for you!

    My wife is Cantonese, and while there were a few things a-ma tried to enforce with both births, it was nowhere near this strict. I do remember a two day old broth that kept being served; when i finally looked into the pot I’d been served out of, I found a BIG SeaHorse!

    Heck, she even refused to stop working after the first week of maternity leave.

    Good luck! and Doh Jai for your recipes.

  3. Brian L says:

    Don’t worry Bee! It will be over soon.
    Can’t wait to talk to you about your experiences so far.

    btw I love ginger and black vinegar pig trotters :)

    Take care and miss chatting with you.

    Brian

  4. I can totally understand! I kept asking my mum whether I can take a small bite of chocolate during my confinement hahaha….

  5. Cathy says:

    I learned about this after a friends wife (vietnamese) gave birth. I think it is brilliant and you should savor every minute of it. Caring for yourself is something we should all do more of, especially moms.

  6. haaa! I am also not sure about not being able to shower thing!!!

  7. Kelantan Gal says:

    My mum was here to help with my firstborn. But I can’t stand the confinement food, especially the wine. She cooked so much food with ginger or ginger wine that I felt so hot, as if burning inside! My hubby had to tell her to stop cooking with ginger… hehehe… she wouldn’t listen to me. I definitely took hot showers. I think I would’ve gone crazy if I couldn’t shower or wash my hair.

    Maybe for your next few posts you can blog about confinement food, especially the ones you like.

  8. ATK says:

    Interesting read! This notion of “confinement” is also present in Burmese superstition and culture, since people believe that the major and sudden loss of bodily fluids and “heat” makes the body more susceptible to illness and death. So women who have just given birth are given warm foods (that warm the blood) for an extended period of time, and not allowed to wash their hair either.

  9. Dorachch says:

    I recently miscarried :( and was also advised to eat all these confinement food by friends & family who mean well but it sounds a little absurd and conflicting with Western medicine. My thoughts are, if the Westerners turn out alright without going through that, then we should be fine too.

  10. Indian customs also follow something like this. We too have to follow some strict rituals and have to follow a strict diet so I hear ya :-)
    But I guess it in a way gives the mother and her body to relax and time to bond with the baby in between all the craziness. I’m sure you must be having a lot of sleepless night and I’m also sure that you r the happiest ever!
    Good Luck with everything!

  11. LIN says:

    CONGRALUTATIONS AND TAKES GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF

  12. Chris says:

    There is NO scientific evidence that supports the practice. I was drinking ice-cold water abt 30mins after giving birth, and washing my hair the same day. Yes, I did enjoy the confinement food cos they tasted yummy, plus someone else was cooking it! I did go overboard with the ginger..my dermatitis flared up and I had to stop. Congrats on your new bundle of joy!

  13. Aunty May says:

    As for my case, I return from the hospital on day 2. From day 3 onwards, I bathe my baby, washed her soiled napkins (well, I can’t chuck them into the washing machine, can I … eeuuww) and cooked the ginger/sesame chicken soup for myself. On day 4, I had to go out of the house. Not that I want to. I shuffled to the car (ouch … still painful), drove off, did whatever needed and came back. And on the same day, I tried to wash my hair with dry shampoo. It did not work. I still smell bad. Then I did … the forbidden thingy. I showered. (with warm water) By day 10, my diet returned to normal and that included vegetable and fruits (stopped taking the ginger soup by now).

    My child is now 16 years old (fyi I am nearing 50). So far, my health has been ok. Nothing major. No body ache or whatever ailment that associate with what people say about “contracting wind”.

    So there you are, I think all the taboos that go with the confinement period ought to be taken with a ‘handful’ of salt. Relax, and don’t be overly concern with it. Cheerio! ;)

  14. GreenGecko says:

    Same for me too. My mom came for Malaysia and stayed with us. It was wonderful having someone to help out. But by the end of it I was sooooo sick of confinement food. Especially since my Mom decided that since we HAD to have the AC on due to my hubby (an American, without a clue how confinement works), I needed EXTRA warming food :P

  15. Jeri says:

    Congrats !!! Just a silly question but how does it add up to 40 days ? Isn’t the confinement just one month ?

  16. feli says:

    I just went through my confinement period as well and I have to say I didnt like it one bit. I told my mom that I will follow all the practice except drinking DOM as I am breastfeeding and I do not want to take the risk with my NB.

    I do have to say that I like the food that was being cooked for me especially the pork trotters. YUM. I am going to learn how to make it even though I am not in confinement anymore. Mom made it look so easy to cook them.

  17. JC says:

    Congratulations on the delivery of your baby. Hope you take a good rest during your confinement period. We look forward to seeing more recipes from you.

  18. I didn’t mind eating sesame oil/ginger/alcohol-laden dishes everyday! I even extended that diet to 40 days! Ha! Anyhow, the major rules I ‘broke’ were showering, washing hair and sleeping in air-con. To me, all these rules were relevant in ancient, rural China, not in modern cities. But I made sure my showers were quick, and I used a hair drier. You’re gonna be a wonderful mommy, Bee. I just know it. :)

  19. Everything you described about this period of your life (confinement) is so interesting. I never knew about it. Be patient and you’ll soon get back to eating your favorite food!
    Magda

  20. How fascinating! I have had 3 kids and find this custom really intriguing. I rested up after the first baby but the next two I found myself out and about not long after… I would have loved to have someone order me to stay in bed, cook and clean for me and look after my other kids!! Not to mention some lovely gingery soups and stews rather than hastily buttered toast or a cup of tea gone cold. Although I have to say the not showering or drinking any water might be a deal-breaker!

  21. tummythoz says:

    Oh my! It’s never too late to shout CONGRATULATIONS!!

  22. Nate says:

    Love the ginger/vinegar pig’s feet soup and the chicken soup with the scotch, don gui & goji berries!

  23. I so admire your maintaining your cultural traditions. Although I must say, I am delighted not to have to do so myself. I hope you are enjoying this wonderful time with your newborn and that he will grow up to be as beautiful as his mother. With best wishes, Monte Mathews

  24. Shao Lee says:

    Congrats mom! Take lots of photos and cherish time taking care of yourself and your son! I had a similiar experience too, since the Hmong share some Chinese traditions. The Hmong women have a strict diet and are also refined in the house from 30-60 days. My grandmother sent me a huge box full of herbs that I was supposed to cook with chicken to make a soup. The only drinks allowed were warm or hot. Ice cubes during and after labor was forbidden. My mom kept harrassing me to drink the soup because it was supposed to help with milk production. Grandma kept reminding me to not lift anything heavy and not reach for anything high. Most of the traditions I’m sure has some logical reason, but not others. My mom was telling that everytime it thunders outside Hmong women are supposed to cut a piece of hair and burn it to ward off bad luck or something silly like that ;)

  25. jessS says:

    Hi, it’s funny since I was just sharing the idea of ‘Chinese Confinement’ with a bunch of co-workers here in Baltimore today. I’ve never had a child but I’ve seen friends go through it and I have mixed feelings about it- in a way, it’s a tradition but at the same time, it seems rather unnecessary. And at this day and age, I feel like women no longer need to obey some of these rules… I don’t know…. Either way, I can’t wait for you to be back to your blog and sharing your wonderful recipes!!

  26. I LOVE confinement food! Congratulations, Bee!

  27. Pete says:

    Hi and congratulations

    I think that traditions are a link to the past and should be honoured the way you have. I had never heard of the confinement before and appreciate the insight.
    My wife is Thai and she has many traditions her mother advises, on many subjects and wherever she can please her mother, she does.
    By the way, I love the site – keep up the excellent work!

  28. Helen Sim says:

    Hi Bee,

    When you do have some spare time, care to share with us some of your confinment food so that I can cook for my daughter in law.

    Thanks.

  29. PSYCHOMOM says:

    hello bee, i do commiserate with you. my mom did impose the confinement on me when i had my son. but being a little bit more realistic and allowed me short trips outside but fully bundled up. i liked being pampered with all the foods and attention. there is a certain wisdom to the confinement philosophy with replenishing diminished stores of nutrients etc. maybe confinement accounts for less female problems occuring when we get older….

  30. anh says:

    delurking to say congrats! I’ve been a long time reader, but haven’t ever posted. I too just gave birth 8 months ago and remeber my mom and MIL trying to get me to oblige to the confinement thing. Suffice to say I’m a bit of a rebel so didn’t follow most of their requests. What may have made sense in the old days just doesn’t hold true now. Not showering in the olden days when water was not treated nor heated would have made total sense, but just doesn’t make sense now. And the whole thing with pig trotters helping with milk production really is a myth. The only thing that ever worked for me was taking Fenugreek.

    However, it was nice to have someone else help with the cooking and cleaning so that you can concentrate on taking care of yourself and the baby. The first three months are the hardest, but stick it out and enjoy some of those quiet moments with your little one as the time really does go by fast!

  31. ck woo says:

    Hi Bee, Congratulation!! Wish you and your Baby G all the best!

  32. Lisa says:

    Congratulations….

    I love confinement food… be it Chinese or Malay. I get to enjoy both cultures. My husband would even prepare a ginger bath for me :), Just imagine.. we were living in KL at that time, the weather was humid, my body was going thru changes and yet I was made to bathe in ginger bath… :(

  33. terri says:

    oh my goodness you’ve been busy!! congratulations!!!!! i wish you all the joy motherhood (n to your hub, fatherhood) brings n a baby boy tt’ll grow up strong and good and loving. all the best!!

    p.s. i didn’t follow all the confinement rules too but one thing i learnt tt’s true is tt you must protect your uterus by not carrying anything heavy (except for the baby) n not over-tiring urself, n always be careful about bending over, always bend your knees n not your waist or you’ll hurt it for a long time to come. this is such great news:DD

  34. Congrats Bee. Been so long since I dropped by, hence this congratulatory wish comes late.

  35. Alyson says:

    Hope your time passes quickly! A little late, but congratulations mama!

  36. joey says:

    Hang in there Bee! It will be over very soon! A friend of mine had to go through confinement but she snuck a shower or two behind everyone’s back!

  37. Swee San says:

    Congratulations Bee! and baby G is so adorable!

  38. Aileen Smith says:

    Congratulations on the arrival of Baby G. Can you direct me to a place on line perhaps to buy good quality dried longans, and the dried dates etc. Thks.

  39. Trissa says:

    Hi Bee! This concept seems so foreign to me even if in the Philippines there are many Chinese communities. Having said that, I think it’s great that you’ve actually embraced your traditions (I know you’re having a hard time but it’s almost over!). Congratulations again on the birth of Baby G!

  40. Ah…confinement. Good for you for doing it in the US! My daughter was born in Hong Kong and we lived there for 5 years though we’re from La Jolla, CA. I did not have confinement, but most of my Hong Kongese friends there did. I always thought it sounded so difficult! Please write again about it. I’m curious to know how it went! Congratulations.

  41. Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer says:

    That is amazing that you can endure the pains of childbirth and then go through having to stick to that diet for a month or more. What an amazing feat. I don’t think I could go that long without showering or wearing that much clothing. Nor could I be cooped up that many days in a row without going insane. I admire what you are capable of enduring.

  42. Padma says:

    Congratulations on your lil bundle of joy, juz came to know about him, he is an angel. regarding the confinement period…..

    It is almost similar in our Indian culture too. I am from southern part of India and pretty much had to eat all the food that generate heat in the body like chicken, minced lamb/goat (kheema) cooked in sesame oil with lot of garlic and no onion. tea was not allowed but gave me coffee made with black jaggery. I had it for 3 weeks and then was on normal diet, but potatoes were big no no for 6 months or so! My baby girl is 14 mo now!

    Good Luck now that it has come to an end. How is the baby doing?

  43. Claire Zapico says:

    hi,
    i also did this ritual and i know how it felt. i remember drinking 3 tonics for blood circulation and a post operation fish soup which helped to heal my wounds. I also remember my mother in law cooking a pig knuckle dish cooked in 1kilo of ginger, its believed that giving this dish to friends is an honor and in exchange they will give you ang pao :)

    i hope you can feature these recipes just to keep the tradition going :)

  44. Tina says:

    Hi Bee

    Congrats on your little bundle of joy! I too agree with Aunty May. My daughter is now 24 and I did not really go through a confinement period. A week after I gave birth, I went for a job interview and got the job. Took showers before my mum came and told her not to cook too much confinement food. Most days I would “forget” to drink the Brands Essence of Chicken that you would put out each evening before she went home. What I am trying to say is take the traditions with a pinch of salt. I did not follow them and I am still in good health! So take care and enjoy your baby!

  45. Rose says:

    Hi there! Congratulations on your new born and I am glad that you have out from your confinment

    Over here, we take kacang ma chicken/pork and white wine pork with lots of ginger

  46. Elena says:

    First of all, I’d like to congratulate on your newborn! How adorable and cute!

    Confinement is definitely NOT easy for me too! I was feeling a bit like zombie especially the first month when I was a new mom. Rules like you can’t take a shower, drink water or eat fruits were really hard on me. :-(

  47. Peter Kong says:

    Belated congratulations,Bee.

    I see some posts asking for pig trotters/black vinegar recipe. Its a very nice dish I also like even tho I’m male.

    I’m quite liberal and feel that the confinement issues originated from China in ancient times where there are cold winters so most people needed to take heaty food to be warm. This became a tradition even tho many Chinese migrated and began living in warm tropical countries.

    Nobody has ever thought about ancient times in Europe and other colder countries where the women did not undergo confinement and went about their daily chores as soon as they were able to without suffering from any ailments as they got older except for old age problems.

    There are heaters to keep people warm in winter nowadays so why fear getting wind?

    Too bad so many people stick to traditions without understanding the reasons why. It all right to take hot showers which ware not easily available then as now.

  48. hebz says:

    congratulations for your bundle of joy. Long time lurker here, I’m expecting my first baby in December.
    I have question though, where did you get DOM Perignon? I live in Midwest and so far haven’t been able to locate that wine, however I have some relatives live in LA, maybe I could ask them to buy it and ship it to me. Thanks in advance

  49. Devin says:

    You know when My wife had our two kids, they go through a very similar diet. The only thing they can eat is chicken. Not the store bought one, but the one you slaughter live. So yes, I had to stock up on them in my freezer for my wife to eat. Herbs for the chicken soup are duck feet herb, lemon grass, and some other type of herb that looks like grass but gives the soup a nice flavor.

  50. Ingrid says:

    I’ve never heard of confinement after giving birth. I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks!

  51. Razzleberry says:

    Wow. Hello and Congrats. I’m Cambodian and had my little tiger in April. We have very similar customs. The wine mixtures and tonics (though I think we used vodka), lots of layers of clothes to stay warm, and other traditions. It’s really interesting and I pretty much pretended to follow some parts too just to please my elders. I just wanted to say, love your recipes and pictures. They look so yummy and delicious.

  52. YL says:

    To follow strictly to the rules during confinement is only applicable to Southern China’s climate which is extremely humid & damp during Spring and cold during Winter. Since most of us overseas Chinese came from Guangdong & Fujian, that’s why our ancestors carried the rituals with them. I’m pretty sure not all of us need to follow it strictly because most parts of world are not as humid and damp as the climate in South China.

  53. Julia says:

    It’s been a while since I last visited your website. Congrats on your new born! Sorry abit late but better be late than never…what the name of your baby? what does baby G stand for? any chinese name? I clicked on the link above Baby G but returned page not found?

  54. Winnie says:

    Congratulations Bee! I haven’t checked this website for a while and am really glad to hear about your good news – better late than never rite? :)I am due in a few weeks and am feeling rather anxious about this confinement business. Having said that I have been on restricted diet due to gestational diabetes so very much looking forward to being able to eat all the yummy Malaysian food again with rice as I am not allowed to have very much rice at all with the diabetes.

    Please do post up some interesting and yummy confinement recipes when you can.

    Hope you are enjoying motherhood and congrats again!

  55. Bete Chen says:

    Bee, parabéns pelo seu bebê. Agora, com 3 meses de idade, ele deve estar uma gracinha.
    Também passei pelo confinamento na ocasião do nascimento de minha filha mais velha. Mas não sei fazer as comidas “quentes”, de confinamento. Sugiro que você faça um tópico com receitas de confinamento. Assim manteremos a tradição para futuras gerações.

  56. Visite o meu site. Está lindo.

  57. diane says:

    Congratulations re your new baby!

    I’m interested in your confinement rules and food…Thanks for sharing!

  58. Vicky says:

    Wow -I had never heard of anything like this! Fascinating (and yes I agree not showering for 30-40 does not sound appealing).

  59. Hope In A Blog says:

    you wont understand it now, but you will be thankful next time when you don’t have rheumatism at a later age!

  60. alison yap says:

    Me mum was my confiment lady..all she asked was what do u wann eat i cook 4 you..i was craving for fried chicken n other sinful food which she eventually cooked..even went shopping with her..hmmm..oh n i dkd wash me hair everyday..

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