Baby & Birth in China

As in most cultures, many customs and superstitions surround the state of pregnancy and the events of birth and early infancy in Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, they function to protect the pregnant woman and child from 'malign influences' and to avert problems with pregnancy and birthing such as miscarriage, stillbirth, death of the mother and imperfections in the newborn.


Many customs relate to the behaviour and environment of the pregnant Chinese woman. Working with glue or other adhesives may cause birthing complications and hammering nails is thought to cause deformity in the foetus. Restraint in day to day life is also required of the mother: the use of foul language must be avoided as this may cause the baby to be cursed. So may torturing, striking or killing an animal: anthropomorphic results may occur- e.g. if a rat is struck the newborn child will look like a rat and behave like one!

Consequently, traditional Chinese society blames the mother of a child that is physically disabled or ‘deformed’ for the ‘imperfections’ of the child, as it is believed that this has resulted from the mother’s actions during pregnancy. In former times, infanticide often occurred in such circumstances, to spare the mother shame, public humiliation and ostracism by in-laws.

A pregnant woman is expected and encouraged to continue working, as it is believed that this will ease labour and delivery. Arguments and disputes are to be avoided as the baby may be disturbed by them. Nutritious foods and herbal soups should be eaten, and ‘sharp’ foods such as pineapple and some other fruits avoided as they may cause miscarriage. Eating squid and crab are discouraged: the former is believed to cause the uterus to ‘stick’ during delivery, the latter to result in a mischievous child. Overeating may cause an overlarge baby and thus a difficult labour and delivery. A pregnant woman should not walk around barefoot. Rubbing the abdomen too often is thought to result in a spoilt and overdemanding child.

Old traditions believe that the sex of a baby can be determined by the shape of the pregnant woman’s abdomen, especially after the first three months. If the appearance of the belly is pointed, then the child will be male, if rounded, female.

It is considered insauspicous to give a name to an unborn baby, as this displays and eagerness on the part of the parents for a child of a particular sex, and may cause disappointment if the child is of the different sex.

The major responsibility for care of the pregnant woman is taken by her mother-in-law, not her husband.

The production of a male heir is of paramount importance in Chinese culture; indeed some Chinese may seek the help of a holy man or shaman if male offspring do not appear. Superstition has it that a couple should eat certain types of food for the seven days leading up to conception to conceive a certain sex baby: tofu, mushrooms, carrots and lettuce for a male child, pickles, meat and fish for a female.
Male descendants are essential to ensure the continuance of ancestor worship and the continuity of family lineage and name. Females cannot inherit, and in the Chinese family system  the wife lives with the husband’s family and is deemed as no longer part of her own family, but the property of the husband’s family. Female offspring are thus thought of as being only ‘temporary’ family members, while male offspring ‘belong’ to the family for their lives.


After birth

When a Chinese baby is born, he/she is already considered to be a year old: age is calculated from the date of conception not the date of birth.

Praise should never be given to or applied to a new-born Chinese baby as this may invite the attention of demons and ghosts: the baby, instead should be referred to with unfavourable terms and words!

A concave navel is considered a sign of a prosperous life for the baby, while an extruding one is less auspicious. If a baby has more than one hair crown it is thought he/she will be mischievous and disobedient, but if he/she has wide and thick ears he/she will live in prosperity. A baby’s head should be stroked often so as it becomes nicely rounded.


After birth, the mother is expected to observe a 40 day period of confinement. During this period, she is not allowed to eat food considered ‘cold’ or have cold baths: keeping warm, by the wearing of thick clothes for example, is considered of paramount importance. If it can be afforded, a special helper- responsible for both mother and child- is hired to tend the new mother for at least two weeks.

A month after the birth, a small celebration to celebrate the arrival of a new family member is held. Guests- close relatives and neighbours- give gifts such as baby clothes or chicken essence (for the mother) and receive a small, round, red and yellow cake with a peanut-based filling and some hard-boiled eggs painted red. The day after the feast, the baby’s hair is shaved off: the baby’s hair is regarded as ‘interim’ hair and its removal facilitates the growth of permanent hair.

Babies who continuously cry are thought to have been disturbed by evil spirits and to ward these off, a single pomelo leaf is placed beneath his/her mattress.

Care is also taken to ensure that the baby’s spirit does not leave his/her body permanently: a baby’s face should not be powdered with white talcum powder when he/she is sleeping as his/her wandering spirit will not recognise his/her face and not be reunited with the body. When a little older, the baby may be fitted with a black bracelet, talisman or image of Buddha which is thought to act to ensure his/her well being.

Naming a child

In Chinese culture, a person’s name has an important role to play in determining his/her destiny. Because of this, Chinese parents will often spend a long time choosing their child’s name.

A typical Chinese name has three words, in principle these are the family name, a name indicating the child’s generation and a personal name, though often the second ‘principle’ is not followed.

Naming a child must take into consideration five principles: the name must have a favourable meaning (particularly favoured are meanings reflecting wealth or well-being) and names with negative possibilities should be avoided, the name must sound pleasant when spoken, the name must reflect favourable mathematical calculations (see next paragraph), it must be harmonious with regard to yin and yang, and it must possess one of the five elements of metal, water, wood, fire and wood.

When written, each Chinese name has a certain number of brush strokes, and each character’s number of brush strokes corresponds to a certain element. A two stroke character is associated with wood, three and four stroke fire, five and six strokes earth and nine and ten strokes water. The total number of strokes in a name can determine a persons fortune: for example twelve strokes bespeaks a life of illness and failure, while 81 strokes presages prosperity and a happy future.


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