Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line, “How much sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” rings sadly true in many families. From time immemorial, wayward children the world over have set many an exasperated parent ranting like King Lear on the heath, and Hong Kong is no exception.

Across the Western world, the advance of scientific thought has meant most people now realise a secure early environment in a family with adequate resources, combined with abundant love and affection – “nurture”, in short – profoundly influences what kind of adult emerges from the chrysalis of childhood and adolescence. Blaming “nature” for unfortunate outcomes – “bad seed” – simply passes the buck of responsibility on to the cosmos.

Gender inequality is a highly effective brake on a society’s progress, and China is no exception

In traditional Chinese society, however, the concept that one’s upbringing could be a cause for waywardness was dismissed, both by parents and other family members, as deeply unfilial. To acknowledge – much less accept – the key role that nurture plays implies inadequate parenting skills or dysfunctional family relationships. Any poor fit that developed between child and family, therefore, must have been the fault of both child – as a soul reborn – and the universe; the actions and temperaments of adults connected to a child could not possibly have had any bearing on how they turned out.

Chinese attitudes to fate’s subtle work­ings also come into play. From the horos­copes of both parents, soothsayers can determine that a particular date would be inauspicious for a child’s birth, and that such a child would be the cause of untold grief and suffering later on.

Proper consultation of horoscopes for expectant parents and the divining of aus­picious dates for birth remain important in contemporary Hong Kong. The local maternity hospital industry still astutely caters for – or, some would suggest, profit­ably panders to – traditional mindsets. Caesarean sections can be easily arranged to coincide with the most lucky date and time around natural term – for the usual fees, of course. In Hong Kong in 2016, modern medical tech­nology ensures that age-old customs can still be accommodated.

Probation for Hong Kong woman who threw her newborn baby in rubbish bag

Physical manifestations of supposed future parent-child incompatibility were traditionally detected by midwives. If an infant defecated at birth, the belief was that the child would be at odds with its father; if it urinated, it would be unharmo­nious to the mother.

Cul­turally accept­able solutions existed for kids likely to bring bad luck on their families. A child could be officially given away to a relative to whom it was unlikely to cause future problems because of more com­patible horoscopes. Better still, such adjust­ments might well have been a positive force in the lives and prosperity of all concerned. The newborn would become a shared child, who growing up referred to the adoptive parents as “father” and “mother” and the natural parents as “auntie” and “uncle”, the child’s primary care remaining within the family circle.

Given their future labour potential, infant boys could always be given away if no willing relative existed, or even sold if they were robust enough, but girls – repositories of Yin’s dark, nebulous void – were imme­diately disposed of, to prevent any further harm. This would be on the mother-in-law’s explicit instructions, given either at the time of birth or when her daughter-in-law went into labour. Midwives knew exactly how to manage this – baby’s necks are easily broken – and if anyone asked what had happened, well, babies often died at birth, didn’t they. It was simply the child’s unhappy fate not to live in this family, in this particular reincarnation …