Concepts of Pregnancy, Childbirth Ad Infacnyc in Ch'Ing Dynasty

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Furth, Charlotte. “Concepts of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infancy in Ch’ing Dynasty
China.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987): 7-35. JSTOR Sept 09, 2011.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy, as revealed by popular medical texts of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911), were socially organized to support the forms of gender subordination required by Confucian familism and to reinforce its moral values. The Confucian moralist’s tendency to blame wives for the tensions that accompanied the inevitable process of male inheritance by family division (fen chia) is well known.

In the sphere of reproduction, the subordination of women was reinforced through medical norms. Male medical authorities, prescribed the proper health regimen for motherhood. They taught that successful childbearing, like successful wifehood, was a matter of moral discipline and restraint. Symbiotically linked to the mother, all too likely to die, the child was an outsider, and many of its early illnesses were explained as resulting from its maternal fetal inheritance.

The relationship of pregnancy to illness can be understood only in the context of the overall Chinese understanding of health and disease. Traditional physicians spoke of the five yin “organs” and the six yang “viscera” (we tsang lui fu) more in terms of function than of anatomy. Medical authority echoed the social moralist’s warnings concerning the dangers of sexual appetite. If family harmony was threatened by a wife whose enticements lured her husband away from his patrilineal loyalties, the vitality of a family’s biological descent line was threatened by the same behavior.

A woman’s vulnerability during childbirth was thought of literally as an abnormal bodily openness, a weakening of the functioning systems that usually warded off outside invasion. A traditional month’s seclusion after delivery was so taken for granted that the popular handbooks did...
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