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Man-mothers & traditional Chinese medicine [or] Where do babies come from?

One sure way to spot a China newbie is that they’re still trying to talk sense into Chinese people regarding health and medicine. They don’t know to avoid conversations like the one I avoided earlier this week with our daughter’s Chinese preschool teacher.


(Group eye-ball rubbing is good for your health.)

Like a Pro

I drop off our daughter at her classroom and say to her teacher, “She’s got a bit of a cold.”

“That’s because she doesn’t wear enough, isn’t it.” She smiles sweetly. But it’s not a question.

Now, we like this teacher; she’s not harsh like the other teachers. She’s patient, and positive. And in this situation she’s not so much criticizing our parenting as demonstrating the responsible concern of a good, dedicated and attentive teacher. Every Chinese person who has ever voiced an opinion on the topic (note: that’s a lot of Chinese people) thinks our kids don’t wear enough to the detriment of their health. It’s borderline scandalous. Our particular Bad Parents Offense these last two weeks is letting our almost-4-year-old wear short sleeves to school. It’s what I hear the nǎinais comment about as we run their gauntlet on our way into the school. It’s just not the time of year for kids to wear short sleeves; weather and the actual temperature has nothing to do with it.

I want to reply, “No, it’s because no one teaches her classmates even nominal hygiene, like covering your mouth when you’re hacking up a gooey lung onto the floor. Besides, it’s 8:30am and already over 20 degrees outside and sunny. And when I come give your kids their English lesson, 90% of them will be sweating in their long sleeves, just like all the other classes. And several of them will still have colds despite their extra layers.”

But instead I just smile and leave. Like a pro.


(A buddy gets fire-cupped in a Tianjin bathhouse. It’s good for you.)

“You believe in man-mothers?!”

So what’s it feel like, talking about health with Chinese who have a firmly entrenched TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) perspective? The excerpt below makes a fun illustration.

Jessica and I read stories out loud to each other. We’re in the middle of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe, the protagonist, comes from what’s essentially a pre-industrial Western culture. But he spends several months living among, training under, and learning the basic language and customs of the Adem, a closed and tight-knit, high-context race of philosophical warriors (think: kung-fu + ninjas + inscrutable East Asians). They consider everyone else to be barbarians and augment their conversation with specific hand-gestures. There’s little contact between the two cultures and they are mutually ignorant of the other’s very different customs and beliefs.

In the section below Kvothe and an Adem named Penthe have been sharing the crazy stories each of their respective cultures tells about the other’s. Kvothe is about to discover that the Adem don’t actually know where babies come from – in fact they have no concept or word for father — and he tries to set the record straight. When a Westerner and a traditionally-minded Chinese talk about health, this is what it’s like for both of them; the Chinese or the Westerner could be represented by either character.


(Giant hickeys are good for you.)

From Chapter 127:

Penthe chuckled. “You have the wrong word,” she said, rubbing at my chin. “A beard is what a man makes. A baby is something different, and that you have no part of.”

“We don’t carry the baby,” I said, slightly offended. “But still, we play our part in making it.”

Penthe turned to look at me, smiling as if I had made a joke. Then her smile faded […] “Are you serious?”

Seeing my perplexed expression, her eyes grew wide with amazement and she sat upright on the bed. “It is true!” she said. “You believe in man-mothers!” She giggled, covering the bottom half of her face with both hands. “I never believed it was true!” She lowered her left hand, revealing an excited grin as she gestured amazed delight.

I felt I should be irritated […] “What is a man-mother?” I asked.

“Are you not making a joke?” she asked, one hand still half-covering her smile. “Do you truly believe a man puts a baby in a woman?”

“Well…yes,” I said a little awkwardly. “In a manner of speaking. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. A mother and a father.”

“You have a word for it!” she said, delighted. “They told me this too. With the stories of dirt soup. But I never thought it a real story!”

I sat up myself at this point, growing concerned. “You do know how babies are made, don’t you?” I asked, gesturing serious earnestness. […]

She looked at me for a moment in stunned silence, then dissolved helplessly into laughter, trying to speak several times only to have it overwhelm her again when she looked up at the expression on my face.

Penthe put her hands on her belly, prodding it as if puzzled. “Where is my baby?” She looked down at her flat belly. “Perhaps I have been sexing wrong these years. I should have a hundred babies if what you say is true. Five hundred babies!”

“It does not happen every time there is sex,” I said. “There are only certain times when a woman is ripe for a baby.”

“And have you done this? she asked, looking at me with mock seriousness while a smile tugged at her mouth. “Have you made a baby with a woman?”

“I have been careful not to do such a thing,” I said. “There is an herb called silphium. I chew it every day, and it keeps me from putting a baby in a woman.”

Penthe shook her head. “This is more of your barbarian sex rituals,” she said. “Does bringing a man to the flowers also make a baby where you come from?”

I decided to take a different tack. “If men do not help with making babies, how do you explain that babies look like their fathers?”

“Babies look like angry old men,” Penthe said. “All bald and with…” She hesitated, touching her cheek. “…with face lines. Perhaps the old men are the only ones making babies then?” She smirked.

“What about kittens?” I asked. “You have seen a litter of kittens. When a white cat and a black cat have sex, you get kittens both white and black. And kittens of both colors.”

“Always?” she asked.

“Not always,” I admitted. “But most times.” […]

Penthe gave me a serious look. “You are committing false thinking. You could as easily say two stones make a baby by banging against each other until a piece breaks off. Therefore two people make baby peoples in the same way.”

I fumed, but she was right. I was committing a fallacy of analogy. It was faulty logic.

Our conversation continued along this vein for some time […] Eventually Penthe waved a hand to stop me, gesturing exasperation. “Do you hear your own excuses? Sex makes babies, but not always. The sex must be at the right time, but not always. There are plants that make it more likely, or less likely.” She shook her head. “You must realize what you say is thin as a net. You keep sewing new threads, hoping it will hold water. But hoping does not make it true.”

Seeing me frown, she took my hand and gestured comfort into it […] “I can see you think this truly. I can understand why barbarian men would want to believe it. It must be comforting to think you are important in this way. But it is simply not.” Penthe looked at me with something close to pity. […] “Sometimes a woman ripens. It is a natural thing, and men have no part in it. That is why more women ripen in the fall, like fruit.”

The gulf in understanding health between Westerners and Chinese is even wider than the “man-mothers” disagreement above, because the fundamental worldview premises on which each perspective is built are lightyears apart.

Pro Tip: Here’s a cheap cop-out that works, if you need to escape a conversation like the one above: “foreigners’ bodies are different.” This works. I’m not necessarily saying you should use it — I don’t like it because it’s not being straight with people; avoiding expressing your opinion and giving misleading impressions about your opinion are different things — but it does work. And it’s an explanation that goes back ages. In My Country My People, Lin Yutang relates how some Chinese doctors, upon discovering a Western medical text showing the heart on the left, concluded smugly that, ‘Aha! Barbarians’ bodies are fundamentally different from Chinese, whose hearts are on the right. And this is why barbarians have a different religion.’ (Those Chinese doctors had never bothered to dissect a cadaver.) I use modified forms of this excuse: “Foreigners aren’t afraid of ‘cold'” or “Foreigners can’t ‘get wind'”. or “We’re used to it. It’s not a problem for us.”

P.S. – The Kingkiller Chronicle is entertaining, but has (a lot) more (superfluous) sex and violence than we normally read. So don’t go download it and then come complaining to me!

More about TCM & healthiness with Chinese characteristics:

4 thoughts on “Man-mothers & traditional Chinese medicine [or] Where do babies come from?”

  1. Sigh, I sympathize. We get the same thing all the time — accusations that our children aren’t wearing enough clothes. We live on a tropical island… it’s 32C out and my kid is sweating in a tank top and shorts; the nainais still inject their “he should be wearing more clothes.”

    I also frequently, but with a tinge of pain, resort to the, “Ah, they’re foreigners, they’re different.” Despite spending the other half of the time explaining that, “yes, he does speak Chinese very well. No, it’s not amazing. He’s Chinese.” Both situations make me test the tensile strength of my hair.

  2. I love Rothfuss! I’m actually currently reading through this book. I was visiting the Foreign Language Bookstore in Tianjin (perhaps you remember it), and saw it and couldn’t stop myself. The first book was great.

    To your topic though… while there is a lot of weirdness in medicinal reasoning, I have found a lot of it actually works. For example, a lot of Chinese medicine revolves around the consumption of water as being able to heal problems that in the west, we prescribe hundred or even thousand dollar treatments to. Things like constipation, toothaches, and even various kinds of sicknesses. I’ve been amazed at some of the little treatments that have literally healed problems that in the west would require a doctor’s visit and a monthly prescription.

    1. Plus the whole economic angle to it all in the West… pushing meds people don’t necessarily need for profit, etc. But it’s important to distinguish between Chinese medicine (herbs, things to physically consume) and Chinese medicine (theory, understanding). Sure, things either work or don’t – not much to debate in that kind of situation. But when it comes to attributing causes, or explaining how things work… aiya…

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