Chinese birth rituals



For the Chinese, the family is regarded as the primary unit of society. A birth within the family therefore holds special significance for the community, and is associated with a number of rituals. Although traditional birth observances have largely given way to practical concerns, the importance of this event continues to be marked by the practice of simplified rituals.1

Pre-natal birth rituals
Chinese pre-natal birth observances involve both rituals of avoidance and  protection so as to ensure the security of the mother and unborn child.2 Many rituals of avoidance are associated with the belief that the position of the foetus should not be disturbed in any way, and that failure to do so might result in a difficult birth, miscarriage or injury to the child. Expectant mothers are, therefore, strongly discouraged from moving furniture or renovating the house during their pregnancy. In addition, they are urged to avoid activities such as digging, slaughtering, hammering and looking at unsightly images as these would lead to undesirable consequences. Expectant mothers should also refrain from uttering words that are considered taboo or offensive to deities and spirits.3

Chinese mothers also abstain from certain types of food during their pregnancy that are believed to be harmful to the baby. For example, pregnant Cantonese women are warned against consuming mutton as the Cantonese word for the meat has the same pronunciation as the word for epilepsy. On the other hand, Hokkien mothers are advised to avoid crabs as it is believed that doing so will result in the birth of a naughty child – literally born with as many “hands” as a crab. “Cooling” foods, which are associated with the reduction of heat or vitality, are also avoided as they may weaken the womb. At the same time, it is believed that certain foods should be taken to help strengthen the womb and ensure a smooth delivery. To give the child a smooth and fair complexion, expected mothers are recommended to take gingko fruits and strips of dried soya paste.4

Rituals of protection practised by some Chinese families is the offering of prayers to the goddesses Bodhisattva Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) and Jin Hua Fu Ren (Lady Golden Flower) to ensure the well-being of both mother and child.5

Post-natal birth rituals
The birth of a baby is usually followed by three customary rituals: confinement of the mother for a period of 30 days, ensuring that she is fed an appropriate and nutritious confinement diet, and making offerings to ancestors and deities.6

Upon the birth of the baby, the mother is expected to remain at home during the zuo yue (坐月) or “30-day confinement period”. Complete rest facilitates her recuperation and she is encouraged to consume certain foods, in particular a dish of braised pig’s trotters with ginger and vinegar. These supposedly help the mother regain her strength, regulate her body temperature and dispel air from the womb.7

Today, Singaporean Chinese families continue to observe all the three birth rituals to a limited extent. The demands of contemporary life, such as more women entering the workforce, the breakdown of the extended family system and the high expense of domestic help, have made it increasingly difficult for mothers to strictly practise these rituals.8

First month celebrations
The Chinese regard the completion of the full 30 days since birth as the first birthday of the child or its “full moon”. While the practice of rituals and scale of celebration may vary, most families still celebrate the 30th day or man yue (满月) of the baby’s birth.9

As man yue marks the beginning of the child’s life in the community, his impending good health, happiness and success are paramount concerns of the celebrations. The belief is that these goals are attainable only if the appropriate words are spoken, the right behaviour exemplified, and the necessary ritual symbols used.10

This milestone also marks the time that the mother is allowed to take her first bath and wash her hair, while the ritual of hair shaving is also performed on the baby on this day. In some families, the baby would be dressed in new clothes, preferably red, as well as adorned with gold accessories to be presented to ancestors and deities at home. This is to inform the ancestors of the new addition to the household and to appeal to the spirits to protect the newborn.11

The  baby is also shown to relatives and friends for the first time during man yue. To indicate the completion of the child’s "full moon", relatives and friends are presented with gifts. The types of gifts vary according to dialect group, and range from hard-boiled eggs, cakes and chicken to pickled ginger, savoury glutinous rice and pig’s trotters. The eggs, which have been dyed red for good luck, are an indispensable item as they symbolise the renewal of life. The shape of the egg is also associated with harmony and unity. Recipients are in turn expected to present the baby with gifts, usually gold jewellery or cash placed within hongbao or red packets.  Some families choose to hold the man yue celebrations in a restaurant in the form of a dinner. The restaurant will prepare the red eggs and pickled ginger for guests.12



Author

Teresa Rebecca Yeo



References
1. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, pp. 49–55. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA); 《华人礼俗节日手册》 [Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore]. (1989). 新加坡: 新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会, p. 85. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
2. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 49. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
3. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
4. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
5. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
6. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, pp. 51–52. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
7. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 52. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA); 《华人礼俗节日手册》[Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore]. (1989). 新加坡: 新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会, p. 87. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
8. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 52. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
9. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA); 《华人礼俗节日手册》[Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore]. (1989). 新加坡: 新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会, p. 89. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
10. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 54. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)
11. Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA); 《华人礼俗节日手册》[Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore]. (1989).  新加坡: 新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会, p. 89. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
12.《华人礼俗节日手册》[Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore]. (1989). 新加坡: 新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会, pp. 89–91. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS]); Tham, S. C. (1985). Religion and modernization: A study of changing rituals among Singapore's Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING 301.295957 THA)




Further resource

Chien, C. M. (Producer). (1992). An Introduction to Chinese customs and festivals. [Videorecording]. Singapore: Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
(Call no.: RSING 306.08995105957 INT)



The information in this article is valid as at 14 May 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Chinese--Social life and customs
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Customs
Childbirth--Singapore
Birth customs