“Westerners have better physical strength than Chinese”

It’s October 2014. My husband and I visit his cousin in Changchun.


My husband tells his cousin about my sitting the month (a tradition called  坐月子 zuo yuezi in Chinese that should help a woman recover from childbirth). He explains:

“Westerners don’t have this tradition. They eat cold foods right after giving birth.”

His cousin says: “That’s because Westerners have better physical strength than Chinese. If Chinese women didn’t adhere to Chinese postpartum practices, they’d become ill.”

Have you ever heard anyone say something similar? I’d love to read of your experiences.

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!


  1. My Chinese-American guy’s China-born uncle has a theory that Chinese stomachs are way tougher than Caucasian stomachs. He thinks that because much Chinese cuisine isn’t as fully cooked as Western cuisine, weak Chinese gastrointestinal tracts were weeded out of the gene pool ages ago. I don’t know if that theory has any scientific validity, but I do know that my Chinese guy NEVER throws up. We might both get a virus and spike a fever, but he’ll just lie in bed while I’m vomiting every twenty minutes for 12 hours.

    I know a Chinese-American mom with three mixed race little boys. She spends days cleaning up their puke and her white husband’s puke when her family comes down with the stomach flu, but never gets sick herself.

    I don’t know if the Chinese have better gut bacteria or just evolved stomachs that absolutely refuse to relinquish any nourishment, but I’ve noticed this phenomenon enough that I think there might be some truth to the idea that Chinese have tougher stomachs than white people.

    Of course, since we’re so much physically stronger, I guess it balances out. 😉

  2. I hear this stuff all the time, but particularly when I gave birth. It is total crap. I think so much of it is a mental thing. If you tell yourself that something is going to make you feel uncomfortable (for example, drinking or eating cold foods) than there is a good chance you’ll feel ill because you are expecting it. I also think it’s a matter of habit. Of course if you never walk barefoot or never eat ice cream, it’s going to seem strange or even uncomfortable at first. That doesn’t mean you are weak or that these things are actually harmful. I try to keep an open mind about these things and the traditional Chinese medicine behind it, but I think a lot of it is based on tradition and has little basis on fact or science.

    • I think there’s some truth to some of these things, but every person is different and some things might be more harmful to certain people than to others.

      I’ve found TCM to be helpful with certain health issues, and not with others. It really depends on the ailment!

  3. Hi Ruth,
    I have Cantonese HK parents and I was born in UK. I have heard things like this so many times – different foods I should not eat because I have a cough, cold or the time of the month (before, during and after is different too), or foods that are good for me because I’m female (!!). I used to get mad at my mum when I was a teenager because it just didn’t make sense to me (What do you mean I can’t eat ice cream!!). But from what I can piece together, I think they believe that you have a certain level of hot/cold energy in your body that is disrupted when you are sick.. and certain foods are more ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ so it will knock you even more off balance and therefore, slows down your recovery rate. That is how I make sense of it! If you have heard anything like this, I’d love to really know what it all means! I’m not fluent in Cantonese and I think it can sometimes sound similar to Mandarin but it sounds like: ‘sup yeet’ (wet heat?) and ‘leung’ (cool).

    I think growing up in UK has given me ‘Western characteristics’. I’m much bigger in height and size to my cousins in HK so I would say I am most definitely physically stronger than they are by far (I’m probably on the lower end of an average Western female).
    My theory is that I had a high dairy diet when I was little (yoghurt, cheese, milk) and I think these foods are not so popular with small Chinese children in Asia? What do you think?
    I’m 5ft6 – 60kg, my little brother is 6ft – 100kg+. We both loved our dairy when we were little and now we eat healthily with some junk sometimes (not too much concern over junk food) and we work out. My sister did not like any dairy and ate similar to our cousins in HK (very picky with their food is all I can say! Mostly meat and rice and a lot of junk) and they (including sis) are 5ft-5ft3 and around 44-47kg. I would say I rarely get ill (1 x a year due to having asthma so I might get the flu or a chest infection) and my sister and cousins are ill more often with ‘little things’ like coughs, colds.

    • I don’t think I can answer your question.

      After reading some parenting books, I have gotten to understand that the big majority of our genes is actually shaped by our environment when growing up and we’re not just born with an unchangeable gene pool. So I’m sure environmental factors play a role in what you mentioned, but I can’t say how this all relates to the food we eat and body size.

      Maybe getting ill is also related to other factors than food. Like cramped housing, many people living in small spaces, …?

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I can only guess here.

  4. I have very mixed feelings about xuo yuezi. I mean I have never been pregnant and delivered a baby, so I don’t have any direct experience about it. I think the basic idea behind it (resting and taking care of yourself) makes sense, but then there are so many superstitions and traditions added to it that sound like non-sense to me..

    Anyway, I think that Western and Asian people have exactly the same physical strength. It seems like a lot of Asians believe that Westerners are much stronger than them, but I don’t think there is any evidence behind this.

    • I also believe that when it comes to regaining strength after birth, Westerners and Chinese are the same. I haven’t adhered to zuo yuezi in the traditional sense, but I was careful with some things like not being outside in cold weather and drying my hair after showering. I totally agree, the basic idea of zuo yuezi is great, but some parts of it are really dated or don’t make a lot of sense.

  5. I have heard exactly the same comment! The situation was: eating watermelon, one Chinese colleague was not eating, when I asked her why she said she had her period and could not eat cold things. When I told her that we eat cold things and nothing happens, all the girls said that Westerners are stronger so it is fine for us, butif they eat cold things when having their period will get diarrhea.
    Sorry, but I have to agree with R Zhao: total crap and the perfect answer to give when you don’t want to think why things are the way they are (or why you are blindly believing things).

    • This seems to be a very common believe here – that we can do and eat things Chinese can’t because we’re different. I’m not saying eating cold things can’t have an effect on one’s period (I know that eating things with eg. ginger can increase blood flow if you have heavy menstruations to begin with), but if it has, it applies to both Westerners and Chinese.

  6. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the superstition from the good advice. All that I can say is that after having three babies within five years, I could have used a little more rest after each birth, especially the last one when we packed up and moved to Asia three weeks after our daughter was born. It’s good to be tough, but sometimes in the West we overdo it.

  7. Often it is basicaly jsut an excuse to say that Westerners have a better physical strenght than Chinese. To take matter away from the resting months etc because I am already kind of sick of all the complaints we had from our Chinese relatives about it..to go to me (yes me 🙂 ).

    As I used to be a professional swimmer long years ago I have a bit different structured body so each time we are in China my wife’s friends and relatives say it is so much easier for Westerners to get a good body/ get in shape. Well, I wonder how they imagine all those Chinese Olympic Gold winners achieved their goals if Chinese are so much weaker according to the general populus.

    Chinese are in no way “weaker” or whatsoever and I really wonder why so many people just dont research their stuff. For example my wife (oh no, I got back to that topic) was always for this resting month until she got pregnant and started researching on her own and consulted doctors from both Finland and China. Especially one doctor in Xi’an was very frustrated with the general behavior of so many Chinese when it comes to this old tradition as some of them indeed are bad for both child and the mother, but well, I guess it will take a long while until Chinese accept that they are just as strong as we are 🙁

    • I also think that especially when it comes to giving birth, we don’t have better physical strength. Every woman needs time to recover after birth.

      Good point. There are also many Chinese who love playing basketball and do other sports. In most cases, I’d say it’s just a matter of exercising.

      When it comes to zuo yuezi, there are a few things that definitely shouldn’t be blindly followed, like not brushing your teeth for a month or longer!

  8. 陌生人

    I think if your cousin-in-law was speaking in mandarin, he probably (should have) meant white people are constitutionally stronger, rather than simply physically stronger than yellow people… but he probably meant it both ways.

    You might think it’s a gross generalisation and stereotype… but the average white person is no doubt stronger than the average yellow person (physically at least… perhaps not constitutionally). I know you’ve posted about stereotypes and your husband before… but there’s a reason why stereotypes exist.

    But the “average” yellow person unfortunately has an ingrained sense of inferiority to the white person… for many reasons and this complex is then expressed in a variety of attitudes from fear, subservience, envy to hatred. This might change in time…but not in our time.

    Your cousin-in-law is a perfect example of this and if you live in an eastern society with a western presence eg China, I think you will see this everyday.

    Having said all that, I’m sure you know what he said was utter rubbish.

    But I’d like to know what you think?

    PS nice photo by the way and I hope you’re all doing well

  9. Really interesting topic of debate… and I think I have to agree with RZhao and Marta: The Chinese mentally condition themselves to believe that this is good or bad, which inevitably conditions their bodies in the long run. I don’t think it’s a difference of bodies or physical strength (although I’m sure tinier women have more risk with child birth, and Chinese women tend to be smaller than the typical westerner), it’s just silly in my opinion.

    I have picked up some of these Chinese habits and mentalities, though. I tend to drink more hot water/tea now, especially after a meal (I asked the doctor, it is better for your digestion!). And there are some aspects of TCM that are quite useful.

  10. Suigetsu

    In terms of raw physical strength I think there’s little disagreement that white people are indeed stronger. The scientific basis in this idea lies in the fact that white people, on average, have higher levels of testosterone and greater proportions of muscle mass than their Asian counterparts. (White people in turn have lower levels of testosterone and less muscle mass than black people.)

    The flip-side to this, however, is that Asian people tend to be less prone to cardiovascular diseases and have longer life expectancies.

  11. Yes have heard very similar stories and a friend of mine who is Taiwanese and living in Beijing took her little boy out a couple of weeks after he was born and was berated by Chinese women in the streets … amazing!!! They believed she should have been in the house resting for the zuo yuezi.

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