Teaching Module

Ancient China

Learning begins in the Womb: Fetal Instruction [Official Document]


Han dynasty intellectuals such as Liu Xiang (c. 77-6 BCE) advocated "fetal instruction" [taijiao] as a means to influence the moral development of the child at the earliest possible opportunity. Fetal instruction demands that the pregnant mother take care in what she allows herself to see, eat, hear, and say, and requires her to be ritually correct in her deportment. This prescription was based on the principle of "simulative transformation" [xiaohua]. Liu believed that, "People's resemblance to various things at birth is due to their mothers' being moved by these things." He further claimed that if a woman is affected by good things, her child will be good, if she is affected by bad things, the child will be bad. Simulative transformation is a radical view of the environment's effect on both the spiritual and corporeal constitution of human beings. In this case, the environment is the womb, and the sensory stimuli that affect the mother simultaneously affect the fetus. Purely physical transformations were also thought to occur. For example, a birth defect, such as a harelip, was thought to be the result of the pregnant mother's eating hare. We can surmise that fetal instruction was an accepted element of prenatal care among early Han aristocrats since a manual addressing this art was discovered in 1973 in the tomb of the son of the Marquis of Dai (d. 168 BCE). This approach to fetal care gave the pregnant mother some degree of control over, but at the same time, a heavy responsibility for the health and well-being of her child.


Kinney, Anne Behnke, trans. Traditions of Exemplary Women: An Annotated Translation of Liu Xiang's Lienü zhuan. Forthcoming. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Tairen was the mother of King Wen (11th cen. BCE) and a middle daughter of the Zhiren clan. Wang Ji took her as his wife. By nature Tairen was devoted and reverent, completely virtuous was her conduct. When she was with child her eyes beheld no evil sights, her ears heard no perverse sounds, her mouth uttered no careless words. She was able to teach her child in the womb. When she went to relieve herself in the [privy over] the pigpen, she gave birth to King Wen. At birth King Wen was brilliant and sagacious.

The Gentleman says, “Tairen may be considered as one who was capable at fetal instruction. In ancient times, a woman with child did not lie on her side as she slept; neither would she sit sideways or stand on one foot. She would not eat dishes having harmful flavors; if the food was cut awry, she would not eat it; if the mat was not placed straight, she would not sit on it. She did not let her eyes gaze on lewd sights or let her ears listen to depraved sounds. At night she ordered blind musicians to chant the Odes; she spoke only of proper things. 1 In this way she gave birth to children of correct physical form who excelled others in talent and virtue.”

1Here the text suggests exposing the unborn child to one of the classics in order to predispose the child to talent and virtue.

2Here Tairen aligns herself with correct ritual, her posture mirroring the attitudes prescribed in the Book of Rites, as well as those that purportedly distinguished Confucius. The Analects, for example, provide a similar account of the master’s deportment: “He did not eat meat that was not properly cut up. . . . If his mat was not straight, he did not sit on it. . . . In bed he did not lie like a corpse.”

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).