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Pregnancy taboos in medieval China

Close up on a section of a scroll, written in cursive Chinese.
© British Library Board

Many cultures have restrictions or prohibitions on the behaviour of pregnant women, stemming either from the desire to protect the mother and unborn baby, or from beliefs that see pregnant women as ‘impure’. There are many taboos in Chinese culture surrounding pregnancy, for example pregnant women are advised not to put scissors or anything sharp on their beds that could harm the spirit of the unborn baby, but to keep knives under their beds to ward off evil spirits.

I recently came across an article published in July 2009 (1) containing some interesting information about medieval Chinese prohibitions surrounding pregnancy from an analysis of the verso of Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.4433 (see image above) in the British Library Stein collection. The manuscript advises women who are three months pregnant not to face south or east while bathing. Author Liu Yanhong 刘艳红 argues that this seems strange as both directions are usually positively associated with reproduction and vitality. According to Liu, the southern wind is associated with growth in classical Chinese sources, and the east wind is associated with spring. In ancient China the spring (east) wind was considered the ‘offspring’ of the interaction between heaven and earth, and thus the east wind was also known as the ‘joining wind’. Therefore Liu is perplexed by the cultural admonition against pregnant women from bathing facing the south or east.

A clue to this can be found, argues Liu, in the importance the ancient Chinese attached to spirit or ancestor worship. Heaven and earth were the most important spirits, and events such as lunar or solar eclipses were interpreted as portending disaster. Thus, pregnant women, as they were considered impure, could not take part in the ceremonies or eat the sacrificial food. Liu then wonders whether the taboo on pregnant women bathing facing south or east was also due to their perceived impurity. As the sun rises in the east and shines longest in the south, Liu thinks the prohibition on bathing facing those directions is linked to the sun god. The life-sustaining properties of the sun meant that the sun god was highly respected by ordinary people in medieval China. Two other spirits of the natural world were also associated with those two directions, the thunder god with the east and the fire god with the south, showing the fear and respect inspired by thunder and fire. According to Liu, the prohibition of facing the east or south while bathing seems therefore to stop pregnant women from offending the sun, thunder and fire gods. While this conclusion is backed up with citations from classical sources, Liu is perhaps making some large assumptions in linking prohibitions facing certain directions while bathing to offending deities.

Liu points out that another aspect of the prohibition could be to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies. In medieval China people believed that before the end of the third month of pregnancy the spirit of the unborn baby was not yet completely formed, and the sex of the baby was not decided. People thought the baby could be damaged by the sun, thunder or fire, which is possibly another reason for the prohibition.

Another Dunhuang manuscript (see image below) dealing with birth is Or.8210/S.6983 (ff.9V-10R), and has paintings of a couple praying to the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), on one panel, and the woman giving birth next to a midwife on the following panel showing her prayers were answered. The text under the painting reads (2):

Booklet with simply coloured drawings above Chinese writing.
© British Library Board

If a woman wishes to give birth to a boy, she should offer obeisance and alms to Avalokiteśvara and she will bear a son blessed with merit, virtue and wisdom … and a daughter, she will bear one with all the masks of comeliness, one who in the past planted the roots of virtue and is loved and respected by many persons.

These two examples show the typical mingling of folk beliefs with prayers to Buddhist deities in medieval China. There is more information on this manuscript in the catalogue entry next to the item on the IDP database (type Or.8210/S.6983 into the search box on the left hand side of the IDP homepage, and on the education resource of the British Library 2004 Silk Road exhibition, available from the Education pages on the IDP website.


1.The information in this post comes from the following article by Liu Yanhong 刘艳红, ‘Dunhuang wenxian S.4433 zhong jinzhi yunfu mianxiang “dong” “nan” jiaomu xisu tanmi’ 敦煌文献S.4433中禁止孕妇面向“东”“南”浇沐习俗探秘 (A Study on the prohibition of pregnant women facing east or south while bathing in Dunhuang manuscript S.4433). Journal of Qinghai Nationalities Institute, vol. 35, no. 3, 2009: 39-42.
2.This English translation is from Watson, Burton, The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993: 300.


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