Hatched, Matched and Dispatched:
Customs of Birth, Marriage and Death, Part One
Over the last three months of this column, we looked at the ways that humankind has devised to coexist with supernatural forces. Through religion,
we entreat them to help us; through magic, we seek to manipulate them; and by paying attention to superstitious beliefs, we
attempt to at least stay on their good side and not tempt them overmuch.
I pointed out that since beliefs about the supernatural, however it is defined, are ubiquitous in human societies,
mentioning them in your stories will help to build a more realistic world and will also interest and entertain your readers. The same may be said of the numerous beliefs surrounding three of the most important
stages in the human experience: birth, marriage and death. This month, we’ll
look at birth.
All human societies observe customs and rituals associated with the birth of a child, and the mention of them as a
means of building your world can bring your description down to a very personal level.
In writing historical fiction, it is often easy to research the customs associated with birth and build a description
if them into your story, assuming, of course, that it is relevant and appropriate. Good
stories are about people and their experiences and challenges in life, and through descriptions of rituals that take place
at important stages of life, your show your characters as real and authentic, and the world they live in is made more understandable.
There are various customs observed during the actual birth process, such as the couvade, whereby
the father of the child retreats to some location with his male relatives and, with their enthusiastic encouragement, pretends
that he, too, is giving birth and acts out the process complete with sound effects.
In pre-modern China, the pregnant woman was expected to refrain from any activity which was thought to harm the unborn
child, and perceptions of dangerous behaviour varied according to social status. It
was not, for example, considered dangerous for a peasant woman who was pregnant to work in the fields-on the contrary; it
was thought to be beneficial in strengthening the baby. However, amongst the
leisured classes, even the mildest physical exertion was thought to be dangerous to the unborn child. (A case, perhaps, of customs and beliefs reflecting survival necessities.) Pregnant women were thereby
made responsible for a successful birth and a healthy child, and if the birth were difficult or the baby stillborn or malformed,
the mother was often openly blamed and reviled for her carelessness and lack of devotion to her husband and family. The pregnant woman was prohibited from walking barefoot, and must not eat crabmeat
for fear of bearing a mischievous child. Also, she must not rub or massage her
abdomen too much because that will result in a spoilt and demanding child.
The birth was usually attended by midwives and one or more Daoist (Taoist) priests.
It was believed that dangerous and evil influences were also present, and so the newborn was not washed for three days
to allow time for the influences to weaken. At birth, the child was considered
to be a year old, and was not given a name until a month after birth. The name,
its meaning, and the number of brush strokes in the characters of the name, were all seen as important and became the subject
of much family deliberation. An astrologer was also employed if the family could
not agree, although usually, the deciding vote was cast by the grandfather.
All these rituals and perceptions were central to a person’s understanding of the beginning of life, and if there
is an opportunity to do so, describing birth rituals such as those in China can give a sense of authenticity to the world
you are creating for your characters. All societies are fascinated by the birth
process, and the pregnancy that precedes it.
If your story is set in a particular historical era, do a little research and see if you can find out how the people
of those times viewed pregnancy and birth, and if you are designing your own purely speculative world, then a good way to
give it realism is to mention the important life-stages. It’s all part
of the task of building a world that is meaningful to your readers, has an authentic ring about it, and also holds the interest
of your readers.
If the “world” in which your story is set and in which your characters live, is left barren and devoid
of physical or social characteristics, then the picture is not complete for your readers.
The goal is for them to become almost as interested in the world as they are in the storyline, and your characters
will become more interesting and real if you give them a social context in which to live.
In the case of historical fiction, much of the reader’s fascination often comes from an interest in the historical
world itself. Readers want to be carried back in their imagination to those times,
and to gain from your writing some sense of what life was like. They count on
your research and your imagination to provide that experience.
Life stages such as birth are centrally important to human beings, and so make a good contribution to world building. Marriage and death are also major stages, and we’ll look at those over the next
couple of months.