Po ge lai, or simply ge lai, is the Hokkien term for the Chinese traditional method of taking care of a woman after she gives birth. Internationally, it is known by its Mandarin term, zuo yuezi (tsuo yüe-tz), which translates to either “sitting the month” or “confinement.” As its translation suggests, the practice is one month long and involves a whole lot of rest.
Ge lai is based on three beliefs that the Chinese have about mothers who have just given birth: (1) The mother is more prone to infection; (2) the mother has lost a lot of qi, or life force, which she needs to recover; and (3) the mother’s pores become open, so she is susceptible to “wind,” which can cause illness (in Filipino tradition, we call it binat.)
To protect the mother’s health and to help her body recover from the rigors of childbirth, she is confined to the house for one month, fed nutritious food and healing tonics, prohibited from doing anything strenuous such as housework, and kept away from anything cold.
Women who have been subjected to po ge lai are enthusiastic about how healthy and strong it made them feel afterwards. The generation of mothers who were subjected to ge lai in their youth claim that it was ge lai that kept them from feeling aches and pains in their “golden” days. Mothers who have experienced childbirth with ge lai say their wounds healed faster and they regained their figure more easily when they did ge lai than when they did not.
Sounds inviting? Fortunately, you don’t have to be Chinese to practice po ge lai (although with all the Chinese herbs that you will need, it certainly helps to have easy access to Chinese shops). But read on before you jump into it, because there’s so much more to it than meets the eye.
The Rules of Po Ge Lai
1. Keep warm and dry. As previously mentioned, the Chinese have a traditional belief that women’s pores open up after childbirth, and this makes it easy for “wind” or chills to enter the body. If that happens, the woman can get seriously sick or weakened.
Therefore, women undergoing po ge lai should stay well covered, with long pants and socks covering their legs and feet to keep the wind out. All cold things such as water and washing are forbidden. This means no hand washing, no shampooing, and definitely no baths – for one whole month!
In a country where women are used to taking a bath every day (or even twice a day), this no-baths rule is by far the most challenging aspect of po ge lai. Kathy, a stay-at-home mom who is used to taking two baths daily, described the experience as “excruciating.” Her solution to keep the itch and odor (real or imaginary) under control was ethyl alcohol, applied especially on her underarms.
Other moms cheat and take sponge baths with warm water. But of course, if you’re going to do po ge lai, it’s really best that you do it properly – else, why bother to do it at all?
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2. Stay home indoors and rest. This means no visitors and no outings. Human contact makes one prone to infections. Some say it also makes one more prone to “bati,” or attack from evil spirits. So to protect the mother and baby from such dangers, they are discouraged from having unnecessary human contact during the month of recovery. (In any case, you can’t really feel comfortable going among people when you know you haven’t taken a bath for days, right?)
At least you are also exempted from household chores, because you’re supposed to be resting.
3. Drink your soups and tonics. Drinking plain water is prohibited under po ge lai rules because water – even tap water – is classified as “cold.” But don’t worry about dehydration; there are plenty of herbal teas, medicinal soups, and tonic drinks that you are required to drink in place of water, so dehydration is practically impossible.
“Quakermommy” lists in her blog, This Mom’s Life, the tonics she was required to drink during her po ge lai days: • Seng-hwa-theng. This tea is drunk on the first three mornings after childbirth. Its purpose is to flush out “dirty blood” from the body. • O-tso-tong-sim. This is a tea made with dates, prunes, and longans. It is given as a replacement for plain water all throughout the ge lai period because it is considered warm, unlike plain water. An additional advantage of this tea is that it is full of fiber, which helps prevent constipation. • Lapu-lapu soup. This is given every day. It is said to help with milk production. • Chicken and ginger soup, or tinola. This is also given every day. This highly warming soup will really make you sweat, driving out any remaining traces of cold in your body. • Sip-tsuan-tai-po. This is a highly nutritious herbal concoction that is given 21 days postpartum and is meant to complete the mother’s recovery.
Another popular ge lai drink is Serravallo wine. This tonic, made from grapes and the bark of the cinchona shrub, is rich in vitamin B complex and iron and is said to stimulate circulation and appetite, nourish the nerves, and rejuvenate the red blood cells.
4. Eat your ge lai food. Under po ge lai, you are not allowed to eat fresh fruits and vegetables because, like water, these are considered “cold” food. So what should you eat? Well, there’s chocolate, eggs, fish, meat, black chicken, and regular chicken. Oatmeal and fried rice (with sesame oil) are also popular ge lai food.
Mommy Raquel, who is married to a man with Chinese ancestry, shared a sample menu of the meals that her mother-in-law prepared for her during her ge lai days:
• Breakfast: Chocolate-flavored oatmeal and o-tso-tong-sim tea • Lunch: Dry black-chicken stew, lapu-lapu soup, chocolate bar, rice, and o-tso-tong-sim tea • Snack: Chocolate-coated cookies and o-tso-tong-sim tea • Dinner: Chicken soup, chocolate bar, rice, and o-tso-tong-sim tea
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5. Ease out of it. When your thirty ge lai days are done, don’t take an hour-long shower to make up for your thirty no-bath days -- you have to ease out of it.
For your first bath, you use water in which herbs have been boiled. Mommy Kathy said it was like “taking a bath with brewed tea.” After that first bath, you wait a couple of days before you take your second bath. Eventually, you can take a bath every other day. By the end of the second month, you could be taking a bath every day again.
Ge Lai and Breastfeeding For mothers who intend to breastfeed, the question arises: “Won’t ge lai adversely affect my ability to breastfeed?” Of special concern are the prohibitions on drinking water and the effects of the herbs on the baby.
Actually, po ge lai takes breastfeeding into consideration. The fish broth that is given every day is actually meant to stimulate milk flow. Plain water may be forbidden, but your body certainly gets all the fluids and nutrients it need from ge lai food, soups, and tonics.
If you are concerned about the effect of the herbs on your baby, you may find Mommy Jane’s advice useful: “Nurse your baby before you drink the herbs.” That way, you lessen the possibility that your baby will ingest the herbs through the milk.
Doctor Says… What about doctors – do they approve of po ge lai practices?
Dr. Marina Alcalde, MD, FPOGS, has been a practicing OB-gynecologist for over forty years. She commented, “In my experience, this thing about taking baths after childbirth is largely a cultural thing. For instance, when I was in Papua New Guinea, I saw a completely opposite practice – women there would swim in the ocean immediately after they give birth. But there are also cultures that believe it’s not good to take a bath so soon. As long as they keep the wound clean and prevent infection, I let them do what their culture dictates.”
What about not eating fruits and vegetables for one month?
“Normally, we recommend that women eat as much fruit and vegetables as they can after childbirth because the nutrients they get from these foods will aid in their healing. But remember, it is the nutrients and the fiber that we are after, not the fruits and vegetables per se. So if they are prohibited from eating fruits and vegetables, they simply need to get their nutrients and fiber from other sources.”
So, to ge lai or not to ge lai? As far as our doctor is concerned, it’s all up to you. Do you have the strength to not take a bath for one whole month, in exchange for a future of better health? Do you believe in the benefits? Can you bear the idea of having chocolate every morning and not doing housework for thirty days and letting somebody prepare all your meals for you? Then go for it – and don’t forget to share with us your ge lai experience!