Childbirth Traditions Around the World: ChinaLeah M. Brown
According to Chinese custom, a husband should carry his bride over a pan of burning coals when entering his home for the first time to ensure she will pass through labor successfully.
Once pregnant, a woman guards her thoughts. It is believed everything she does and sees will influence her unborn child. According to old Chinese tradition, what affects a woman’s mind will also affect her heart and connect with the baby in utero. A pregnant woman reads good poetry — she doesn’t gossip, laugh loudly, sit on a crooked mat, look at clashing colors, or lose her temper. Many Chinese women will read beautiful stories before drifting off to sleep. And, sex is absolutely forbidden during pregnancy.
There are many ancient taboos regarding the food Chinese women eat during pregnancy. It’s believed that if a pregnant woman eats food that’s not properly cut or mashed, her child will have a careless disposition. Or if she eats light colored foods, the baby will be fair-skinned. Many also believe that no construction work should be done in the house of a pregnant women because hammering and sawing could lead to a miscarraige or fetal deformities. Also, pregnant women should never attend funerals and to scare away evil sprits, Chinese women may sleep with knives under their bed. For the same reason, a piece of paper cut to resemble a pair of scissors is sometimes hung from bed curtains and tiger skins are hung over the bed.
Many believe it is unlucky to throw a baby shower for an unborn baby. In China, the parties come after the little one arrives. The expectant mother’s own mother buys the child’s entire layette. A month before the baby is due, the maternal grandmother sends a package of clothing for her expectant daughter called tsue shen, or hastening the delivery. There is a white cloth inside the package with which to wrap the newborn. The maternal grandmother waits three days after the baby arrives before she visits the newborn bringing all her clothes and baby equipment.
Chinese women will often drink a strong herbal potion to ease the strain of labor. Custom dictates that women not fear the laboring process, since birth is considered a women’s career to the ancient Chinese. Chinese women traditionally labor in an armchair or futon. Once the baby is born they will often pray to the goddess who helped them conceive with an offering of sweet meats and incense.
The Chinese Zodiac
When a child is born is also important to Chinese custom. The hour, day, month and year the baby is born dictate which of the Eight Characters he is born under. The Eight Characters are considered so important they will rule the child’s life. They foretell if a child will be successful, wealthy, or blessed with good fortune. Parents may also hire fortune tellers or soothsayers to read their baby’s fortune. The Chinese believe that each person is made up of some of the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. If a fortune teller finds a child is lacking an important element, the missing element is incorporated in her name — unless the missing element is fire or water. If water or fire is absent, that is considered a good omen. It is believed that a child with too much fire could be injured by fire in his life; a child with too much water needs to be watched, for she might drown.
The Baby’s Name
The Chinese wouldn’t dream of naming a baby before she’s born. In fact, they are given false names, or milk names, to scare away evil spirits. Ancient wisdom dictates parents refer to their baby as an animal or as ugly to trick the spirits into thinking the baby is not worthy of a kidnapping. Once the child is older, he is named. The Chinese sometimes have four or five names for a person — one for childhood, one for school, one for after graduation, and even one after death. And, the Chinese often honor family ties by using generational names. To announce the baby’s birth, a new father sends money and wine to his in-laws. Special ribbons fastened to the wine jar signify if the baby is a boy or a girl. Parents send red eggs to close family and friends — an even number for a girl, odd for a boy. Or they may send out boxes of fruit. Return gifts might include two kinds of cake, brown sugar, millet, eggs, and walnut meats.
After delivery, Chinese women “sit the month.” The first month is considered an intense healing time for new mother. She is freed from household duties and sits in her bed alone to look after her new infant. In strict households, even the husband stays away. Chinese mothers may fill a baby’s pillow with rice or beans to give the baby’s head a proper shape. And to encourage a strong step, Chinese mothers once bound their child’s ankles loosely with a wide ribbon to keep the feet in an upright positions. Ancient Chinese once believed demons used small children to reinforce the foundations of bridges. As an antidote, mothers and fathers made arrows from the wood of a peach tree to place near the cradle. Parents also tied golden bells tied on the child’s wrists and ankles to keep away the bad spirits. In Southern China, a charm is pinned onto a pair of the father’s trousers and place near the child’s bed in hopes that the spirits will be attracted by the charm and miss the child. It was also believed that nervous children could see the evil spirits unseen by everyone else. To protect these children, Chinese mothers placed small amounts of vermilion in red pouches and pinned them to the child’s clothing. For a rich, healthy life, the Chinese will also tie coins together with a red strings for their children to wear. When a baby is born frail, the parents may ask friends for bits of cloth to sew into a patchwork coat to disguise the child as a poor beggar and trick the sprits. During times of epidemic or contagious illness, mothers protected their children by stitching red cloth in their clothing. And since tigers are consider the protector against demons, many Chinese boys will have embroidered tigers on their shoes.
The First One Hundred Days
In the first 100 days of a child’s life there are at least five events celebrating her life. On the morning of the third day, a Chinese baby gets her first bath. The midwife officiates this ceremony which is attended by female friends and relatives. The midwife sits with the mother on her bed surrounded by a straw sieve, a mirror, a padlock, an onion, a comb and a weight. An offering of incense to the god and goddess of the bed burns nearby. The baby is bathed in hot water boiled with locust branches and artemis plants. There is red silk and a string of cash fastened around the tub. Guests place a piece of fruit or colored egg into the water. Each guest places a spoonful of cool water in the basin and gives a small gift of silver to the baby. The baby’s biggest celebration is at one month when the mother’s allowed out of her room. Family and friends dine and celebrate all night. Money is given in bright red envelopes and the baby wears a silver or gold padlock around his neck locking the child to this world. On the hundredth day some Chinese families host another celebration. Friends and family bring fish and chicken to the child’s home. When the chicken is cooked, the tongue is rubbed on the baby’s lips to make the child a good talker. And the baby’s paternal grandfather may present the baby with a rocking chair. Traditionally, the child’s first birthday is also celebrated with a large feast and offerings to the gods and goddesses. Parents also place a variety of objects in a basket — a pen, silver, official seal, needlework and some toys — and offer the basket to the child. The object the baby grabs signifies the child’s future. The traditional first-birthday gift is a gold ring meant to protect the baby during harsh times. A long bread, yu char kuei, is given to the child for the first time. It is believed it will help him learn how to walk. The day he walks, a relative walks behind him with a knife drawing three lines on the ground. The Chinese believe there are invisible bindings around a child’s ankles binding him to a previous life. With the bindings cut, the child walks freely forever.