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That “Fatty Lump”

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Discourses on the Fetus, 
Fetal Development, and Filial Piety in China 
Before the Eleventh Century CE

image of NAN NÜ

The fetus and fetal development were discussed in early imperial Chinese texts of various genres, which often approached these matters in one or more of the following terms: (1) the cosmic (human life begins and matures in the same way as the rest of the universe, following the interplay of yin and yang); (2) the correlative (the fetus grows according to the Five Phases, all things corresponding to them going through a cycle of changes that give rise to and diminish one another); and (3) the Indic-Buddhist (the fetus comes into being and suffers as a result of karma). These texts do not always present the perspective of the expectant parents on pregnancy; the perspective of the fetus on gestation in particular is prominent in the texts bearing Indic-Buddhist influences. This paper argues that over time the confluence of concepts and metaphors presented in these texts added up to an extremely negative attitude widely held toward the fetus and childbirth. This negativity in turn reinforced, and was reinforced by, the concepts and practices of filial piety that emerged in the centuries following the collapse of the Han dynasty, which were different from those that came before. It also profoundly transformed and enhanced the mother-child bond at the expense of that of the father and child. In particular, the salvational dimension of the mother-child relationship, introduced by Buddhism, made possible a women-centered interpretation of filial piety.

Affiliations: 1: Rutgers University-New


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