- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

BEIJING — Luxury cars, yachts and diamonds are commonplace for China’s super-rich, but a new status symbol has been added to their list of must-haves — the wet nurse.

The practice of infants being suckled by women other than their mothers was branded decadent by Mao Tse-tung and was stamped out by the country’s post-war leaders. But in the booming cities of the east coast, the moneyed classes are no longer constrained by the taboos of their communist overlords and they are looking to the past excesses of their ancestors.

Pu Yi, the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Last Emperor,” was suckled well into his teens.

To have a wet nurse is a status symbol, and young mothers are being lured by the promise of up to eight times their existing salary to breast-feed the offspring of the rich.

“At first I had my doubts, but the money convinced me,” said one wet nurse, known as Madam Gu. “Now I earn five times more than the 1,000 kuai ($100) a month I used to get from the trading company I worked for.”

A poor college graduate from Lianyungang City in Jiangsu province, the 28-year-old joined the household of a Shanghai family this summer. After leaving her newborn baby with relatives, she had to provide test samples of her breast milk and undergo a medical examination.

In addition to producing high-quality milk, the new breed of wet nurses are often required to emulate their imperial predecessors by displaying refined manners and reciting Ming dynasty poetry.

Even their diets are strictly prescribed, including traditional herbs and medicinal dishes, such as stewed pigs’ feet.

However, if their infant fails to grow by at least 20 grams a day (about 0.7 ounces), stiff fines are docked from their wages. According to Mrs. Gu, she is fortunate that her employer allows relatives to bring her own baby to see her once every three months.

Housekeeping agencies have been quick to exploit the market by adding wet nurses to their lists of domestic servants, cooks and drivers. One agent, a former shoe-factory worker, received 200 orders for wet nurses within days of his launch.

One agency in Guangdong recently began a public relations campaign to promote an image more suited to Mao’s communist ideals, by allowing state television to interview one of its wet nurses.

Its director, Zhao Xiaofeng, claimed that Axia, a graduate aged 22, had rejected an offer of nearly $20,000 a year from one wealthy client, choosing instead to breast-feed the child of a poor working mother. The agency claims it generously agreed to subsidize her wage.

Although the boom has triggered a series of crackdowns by the authorities, forcing some agencies underground, demand appears to be growing.

One Beijing agency told the Sunday Telegraph that it did not provide the service, but a day later it was eager to hire an undercover journalist posing as a would-be wet nurse.

“We like to order our wet nurses while they’re still pregnant with their first child,” the agency said.

The journalist was told that on top of her degree and poetry recital skills, she had to be young, beautiful and, most importantly, have superlative breasts.

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