After just a few meals, China newcomers learn to appreciate an ice cold beverage. People often ask me with the perplexity and annoyance, “Why are beers and Cokes served lukewarm?” The dearth of ice is just one of many confounding dining habits originating from what I call “Chinese science” (our system of health and food beliefs).
The central tenant of Chinese science is this: hot water fixes everything. Sore throat? Have a mug of piping hot water. Tummy ache? Hot water (not ginger ale) will settle it. Cramps, headache, dislocated knee cap? No harm in boiling a pot of water!
Especially in temperate parts of China you see “real Chinese” carrying their little bottles of hot water everywhere the way that over-caffeinated Americans hang onto their Starbuck’s cups. The most basic amenity of a proper Chinese office (or train car, or waiting room) is the hot water thermos. Working here, you can expect your inter-office socializing to be done around refilling the desk hot thermos, much like Americans gather around the water cooler to gossip.
The reason for this hot water obsession is simple — Chinese believe the body shouldn’t be overexposed to cold, especially sensitive internal organs. “Taking cold” (zhao liang) is blamed for 90% of discomforts you suffer. This is why my grandmother clucks her tongue when I open a can of cold soda and why my mother chides me for starting my day with a glass of water straight out of the cooler. When my American husband pops a bottle of chilled beer (his greatest satisfaction after a long day) it really sets the old Chinese lady tongues wagging, predicting imminent bodily ailments.
The hot water principle transfers to other beverages, particularly tea. While Westerners espouse a two-liters-of-water-a-day rule to maintain good health, Chinese believe the body should be constantly fueled with tea leaves doused in boiling H2O. Unless specified, restaurants and corner stores assume (for Chinese scientific as well as energy cost issues) you want your beer and Coke lukewarm. As China continues to westernize at a pace faster than I can comprehend, food providers have started to ask customers whether they take their beverage “chang wen” (room temperature) or “bing” (chilled), but this used to not be an option for the ice-starved foreigner.
While Chinese people and practitioners of the thousand-years-old TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) generally love heat over cold, this isn’t always the case. Natives of my adoptive home, Singapore, and other southern Chinese, are familiar with the heat-based dichotomy that rules all food intake under Chinese science. Every edible thing is either “heaty” or “cooling” in a Yin/Yang classification of the plant and animal kingdom. To maintain bodily balance, good Chinese are advised to avoid “heaty” foods in favor of cooling nourishment (like green bean soup or cucumber slices) in the summer. In winter, heaty foods like ginger and mutton (considered intestinal suicide in hotter seasons) are preferred.
There is bad heat too. One of the most common Chinese illnesses, for which I’ve yet to find an appropriate English medical translation after twenty years of searching, is “shang huo”, roughly “escalated heat”. (Actually, the closest literal translation is “be in heat”, but that means a whole different physical condition in English!). Overconsumption of heaty foods, stress, and environmental factors can all cause “shang huo”, which then manifests itself in symptoms ranging from pimply break outs to temper flare ups to ulcers. Even though I’m the real deal – a Chinese-born Chinese-passport-holding Chinese – I’m westernized in my understanding of the body and can only nod with vague sympathy when family members or friends complain of their “shang huo”ness.
I often laugh off my mother’s hokey “Chinese science” health advice (“Put that pear down! You can’t eat fruit straight from the fridge first thing in the morning!”), but there must be validity behind these ancient beliefs. After all, there are those inexplicably effective TCM and other Chinese sciencey treatments – from acupuncture to qi gong curing everything from obesity to cancer. Now that it’s winter, remember to eat your heaty foods and keep your extremities out of the cold! If you run around Beijing without a hat, gloves, and socks, or – gasp! – in shorts (like the lao wai I saw exiting my building gym yesterday) you’ll definitely hear some tongues clucking behind you.