Lijia, China’s Monthly Break for Women

A wooden chair on a deck, looking into the sunset
From my Chinese husband's perspective, my period meant rest -- even if I felt restless about it! (photo by julian leandro irusta)

Yesterday, I heard that once-monthly command from my Chinese husband. “Think of it as a forced vacation. It’s time for you to xiuxi,” he soothed me, putting a pillow on the couch and coaxing me over to sit down and put my feet up.

“But I have all of these things I haven’t done yet!” I pleaded.

John shook his head. “You need to rest,” he urged me, pointing to the couch.

Eventually, I did go to couch, settling into my usual spot, even as my mind was anything but settled about the idea of resting. You should be writing. You should be answering all of those e-mails. You should be…

If there’s anything I should be, it’s used to this whole routine. John and I have been together through years — and therefore, many, many months of me doing what every woman naturally does once a month. I get the kind of cramps that could drive perfectly normal women to light up their tampons and smoke them, so I should be thinking period equals rest. But right on schedule, just as I begin, so my mind begins the once-monthly protest every time John mentions “rest.”

But what I didn’t understand was, John would have urged me to take a break, even if I didn’t have the cramps.

“We call it lijia,” he explained to me, which roughly translates to “regular break.” “In China, when girls would get their period in middle school, they would be excused from PE class for lijia.”

“But why?” I wondered.

“Because the period is challenging, and exhausting. They need a break to replenish their energy,” John explained, wearing an embarrassed grin.

I suddenly thought of the regular absence of these middle school girls, and the likely regular sniggering from the boys as to the cause of their absence. “But isn’t that embarrassing, since everyone knows why they’re gone?”

My question made him burst out in an uncomfortable giggle, before he brought it back to a smile to answer me. “There are jokes. But I never made them.”

While I wasn’t sure if John had been guilty of having a little fun at the expense of a female classmate, I mentally breathed a sigh of relief for never having to take “regular breaks” from gym class in middle school or high school — and get singled out.

But then I thought of the many times I insisted on going to school (including gym) and later work, despite being doubled over in pain when I woke up that day. How I used to buy things like Pamprin and other pain killers to get through the day. And even the way the commercial feminine hygiene world seemed to sell me this idea of it all being “just another day” — certainly, nothing worth taking time off for. Maybe the story I’ve been told about this just wasn’t meant for a woman with my kind of monthly situation.

Well, as my Chinese husband would say, God is fair. He may have cursed me with debilitating cramps. But he also blessed me with a husband who is helping me to re-learn the idea of a monthly rest.

Have you been surprised about the Chinese perspective on a woman’s menstrual cycle, and what she should do to get through it?

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25 thoughts on “Lijia, China’s Monthly Break for Women

  • April 4, 2011 at 2:55 am
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    Loved this read! I am on special painkillers from the doctor, unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice whether I would go to school or not, coz more often than not, the pain was so insane that I was throwing up, losing all the colour in my face and so penetrating that I’d really be hitting walls in my room. It’s getting a little better over the years, some months better than others. My painkillers are certainly something squeeze in my luggage to China. Happy resting!! xx

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  • April 4, 2011 at 3:16 am
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    It’s been one of those things where it seems to me that Chinese tend to take natural things (though of course, with a lot of cultural baggage surrounding them) in a much more matter-of-fact way than “Westerners.”
    I mean – although I’m careful, because I don’t have much in the way of comparison – that it’s comparatively easier for a Chinese woman to excuse herself because of cramps than for a Western woman. Conquer your body, your pain, seems to be our usual attitude – just use the right product, and you can go on like it’s nothing… and it’s similar for the men, in a way. The jokes about being sore, suffering intestinal problems, having a headache. Wait, men don’t get headaches, do they? 😉

    One point I think is missing, though, is that it makes even more of a difference whether you are related or not, in China: Biological things are more of an issue that’s normal, not hidden (if joke-worthy, anyways… though I wonder if it wouldn’t be worse for a Chinese girl if she didn’t take leave of absence some months 😉 ); pretty much everything can possibly be a topic between husband and wife – though you might not even want to tell your parents about your own plans for the future, whether that’s a relationship or a job idea (which might not be their’s).
    From what I have seen in Europe, there will be jokes about a woman having her days, but I don’t think many men will show their concern for the woman during that time (or maybe, the women wouldn’t even want them to know)…

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  • April 4, 2011 at 3:51 am
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    I live in England. Here girls get excused for their period from P.E. all the time but you are right, men generally take the p*** out of women when they are on, usually with condenscending behaviour ie. “the bitch is back”. etc etc. You are right, usually not a concern, instead they will mock the woman even when she isn’t on. blah, not everyone ofcourse, it’s usually more common people who do that. Gets me real angry, and it certainly doesn’t make way for sympathy in return when having the “man flu”..

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  • April 4, 2011 at 4:30 am
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    To be honest I always used my period as an excuse to get out of doing PE when I was in secondary school, I went to an all girls school so it wasn’t embarrassing unless of course the PE teacher was a male… when I have my period I sometimes get back pains my boyfriend usually tells me things like “You should drink more water, you should eat more fruit, You should go to sleep early, all this sort of stuff… But I think Chinese men are more kind about it then Irish men or western men if you like, I know Irish guys always joke and say things like “oh she must be on her time of the month…

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  • April 4, 2011 at 11:09 am
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    Thank you for your interesting posts, Jocelyn.
    It is a good Chinese tradition that women are specially taken care of during their special few days every month.
    It is good for women’s health, especially when they get aging.

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  • April 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm
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    So funny, I am going through my “monthly visit” as we speak. My husband made me Chinese medicine that supposed to help me during this time. My husband just makes sure I get lots of food. xD hahaha. =o)

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  • April 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm
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    Wait until you ladies have babies. Your mother in law or in laws will cook ginger chicken wine soup everyday for 30 days and you have to eat that for 30days. This will prevent arthritis and recover the woman’s “CHI” according to Chinese beliefs. Normally, Chinese men don’t joke about their wives period. During that period of time, I just tell my wife that it’s not “the real you that make those comments, it’s your period that makes you say that” . She usually giggles. So, we understand and take care of our wives in anyways.

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  • April 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm
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    Geez, now I know when I was young why on every month my old man insist that my mother should rest. This is the reason why. Of course they never said to me the reason why. Thanks for the info dude, now if I had my lady then I shall insist on the same tradition either. After all man should look after their woman.

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  • April 4, 2011 at 6:18 pm
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    When I first came across the phrase 例假 (lijia) I was like what? When I came to know what it meant, I went lol! The Chinese really have a way with phrases. But like your husband said, why don’t you just take a break, your lijia. We all need a break, need to take time off to smell the flowers, listen to the gurgle of the brook, the rustle of the wind through the pines trees even the sound of rain-drops on zinc roof or the songs of the crickets in the night, to go the way of tao, the way of effortless effort, to reconnect with ourseleves so to speak. And come back recharged, centered, energised and ready action.

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  • April 4, 2011 at 6:46 pm
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    What a lovely idea! Where do I sign up?

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  • April 5, 2011 at 3:21 am
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    I’m not trying to be critical, because I’ve never experienced the severe discomfort some of you have with your periods, but I don’t know if I’m behind this practice or not. It seems like a nod towards women being more delicate and needing special attention; a way of thinking that seems a bit dated to me. My thinking probably reflects my western upbringing, where we were taught that having your period shouldn’t disrupt your normal routines and wasn’t an excuse for anything.
    Again though, I have fortunately never had to deal with the severe effects that some of you have.

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  • April 5, 2011 at 9:19 am
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    I tend to lose wayy too much blood than I should and it gets pretty dangerous, so my husband makes me this chinese medicine soup that supposedly help “generate” blood, which is always a good thing. I still do laundry. I still cook. I just have to be careful not to do so much where I faint.

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  • April 5, 2011 at 9:50 am
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    During the period, the most important thing is not having a rest , but not letting any part of your body, especially the lower belly, get cold.
    And dont have cold food or drinks.

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  • April 5, 2011 at 9:21 pm
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    Man, I wish I could have gotten out of PE every month. Seriously, though, Bruce is right about manyue, the period of rest during the first month after child birth. I had to endure fish head soup, which I chose over pig feet soup (since I don’t eat pork). I heard the same thing about arthritis. Also, my Chinese family didn’t want me to shower, wash my hair, or go outside for that first month. Our pediatrician made house call visits that first month for all his patients because they were mostly Chinese and wouldn’t leave their houses during that month.

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  • April 6, 2011 at 5:24 pm
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    Hehe…this article is very interesting! I had no idea Chinese girls can be excused from P.E. and such if they have their periods. In the West, we are expected to keep calm and carry on!
    Like your husband John, if my Chinese boyfriend knows I’m ‘riding the cotton pony’, he’ll always tells me to lie down and take a rest, offer me a hot compress, drink or massage, even if I’m in the middle of doing something. He refers to it as my ‘Special Days’ or 大姨妈, which I find oddly adorable.

    I remember, as a relatively private person, being totally taken aback when on our 3rd date, my Chinese guy casually pipes up with, ‘So what days are your period?’
    My initial reaction was suspicion – ‘Why on earth does he want to know something so personal?! is this guy a pervert…or is he…*gulp* planning something?’ But no, that wasn’t the case. Like many Chinese men who have been sadly deprived of even the basic education on female biology, he simply wanted to know more about me and my body.
    Being able to talk about something so natural is actually very liberating. I have never ever experienced this level of maturity with a Western guy – at the mere mention of ‘cramps’ or ‘PMS’ I can see them covering their ears screaming ‘LA LA LA LA’ and running for the hills 😀 I’ve found being able to share these intimate ‘secrets’ is endearing and actually helps us to bond in a weird way, even if there are the odd winks and nudges dotted about 😉

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  • April 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm
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    @ Valentina i had the exact same experience, my boyfriend asked early on about when do I have my period. I felt totally weirded out and uncomfortable, like ewww what the hell is he thinking…

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  • April 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm
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    I used to experience the worst cramping imaginable. I’ve had surgery, I’ve been hit by a car, I’ve fallen out of trees off of bikes… but period pains took the cake. Not just once a month, but twice a month. Growing up I tried to convince my parents to let me stay home from school, but just got laughed at and told to get my rear out the door, saying “suck it up”.

    Sure enough, once I walked the few kilometres to the bus stop, I felt a little better. Now when I cramp up, I have found that if I go for a brisk walk or do some yoga I feel almost human. And for all those that have had their periods during the same time I have and I’ve dragged them along? They feel the same way.

    In China, I watch as girls wear extra clothes, bundling themselves up during their time of the month, refusing to eat certain foods, not wanting to take any form of exercise… I can understand wanting to take it a little easier than normal, but I have never understood the need to treat women like fragile glass. This is not an insult nor is it any sort of negative thoughts towards anyone. I just don’t understand it is all.

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  • April 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm
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    We talked about the Chinese perception of periods in Women’s Studies class, and I have to say I’m a bit torn regarding this special treatment. Chinese boyfriends can certainly be endearing when it comes to ladies’ time of the month, but I’m going to be a bit of a feminist here by pointing out that such a treatment stems from a very demeaning part of the culture. Periods are seen as the ultimate female weakness, symbolizing sickness and death. Women’s magazines would tell women to be extra careful with their bodies during this special time, giving them tips and tricks, which men would perceive as obvious indications that women are indeed the more fragile sex. It’s not so true today in urban settings, but in rural China periods continue to be shameful, hush-hush experiences for women because of their associations to weakness and sickness.

    While it is nice to receive special treatment, I personally would not be able to handle such blatant implications of weakness simply because I was on the red. My boyfriend/husband would have to be more subtle about it, like do a bigger share of housework or cook that week, and that I could certainly appreciate. But then again, I’ve only seldomly had life-debilitating symptoms, which I think is a huge factor in the amount of sweetness someone like me could handle.

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  • April 8, 2011 at 10:44 pm
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    1. In China, the Period is something to be thought of medically rather than culturally, for in the past centuries women have got the experience and knowledge, that letting the body get cold or fatigued in the period will result in some illness at women’s older ages.

    2. Most Chinese husbands usually forget about their wive’s periods. Only a small part of them will give the advice during the period, out of love or concern.

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  • April 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm
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    If you are a caring man, you will be concerned about your wife’s period. Some women will have different symptoms every month. This month she will have severe headache, next month she will have stomach ache .. so on and so forth.

    Reply
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  • March 31, 2014 at 11:40 am
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    @ Kelly, so what if this practice is as you say “dated”? By that very implication, anything old or traditional is deemed as bad. That’s one of the many issues with many of our western ways. What is wrong with a man treating his woman with kindness and sensitivity? Or is it just better to let men treat women harshly and with disrespect? If more men treated women this way I think society would be a much happier place.

    Reply

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