The Hot Water Obsession

Wondering why you’ve been struggling to get an iced water lately? If you haven’t noticed the Chinese’s craze of enjoying a glass of steaming hot water yet, please pay attention.

When you travel, how many Chinese can you see carrying vacuum-sealed thermos? When you invite them to your place, how many of them only require plain hot water? Or when you have a headache, back pain, diarrhea, excessive stress or a common cold, how often do they ask you to drink more hot water as the first and most vital advice they can think of?

Once in a while, this magical beverage turns up in headlines, being exaggerated madly in social media. Though the little health secret is well acknowledged right now, Chinese actually don’t realize it’s a strange habit until they see reactions from foreigners. And Chinese are equally astonished upon knowing that foreigners drink icy water even in a bitter and teeth-clenching winter.

So, is it just a matter of different habits, or is there more to say?

The habit was formed chasing back to several roots. First of all, the eating habits between China and the West vary a lot. There are many more cold foods in the western diet. Westerners tend to have a cold breakfast and many cold dishes throughout the day and night. While Chinese, they tend to eat hot dishes for their three meals a day. Only when it’s scorching hot do they enjoy some “cool mixed cucumber” (Liangban huanggua) or “cold noodles” (Lengmian).

Second of all, it has something to do with the home-grown religion Taoism. The Taoists recommend people to consume warm food, which is closer to human body temperature, so that the body can avoid hot and cold stimulation when handling the food. This so-called “natural” practice toes the line with the principles of Taoism.

On the other hand, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been greatly influenced by Taoism. Therefore, TCM doesn’t recommend Chinese people to drink iced water because it draws down body temperature. Signs of distress of drinking cold water will not appear as immediate as a fever, but rather occur over many years. However, it does hurt a stomach, which prefers warmness according to TCM.

Although recently Chinese young people have shown tremendous tolerance with cold drinks, it will still be a long way for the country to consume as much as the West.

Moreover, it being “good for your health” is not the only reason why the Chinese stick to hot water regardless of weather, it’s also due to the hygiene issue of drinking non-boiled water. It was the middle of the 20th century when Chinese could finally afford to consume clean and boiled water. In ancient China, fuel was so scarce that it could only be reserved to the vulnerable such as the elderly, children and the pregnant, after more pressing matters like keeping warm and cooking meals.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Kuomintang government realized the hazard of drinking “impure water,” which might contain certain parasites and harmful bacterial, and feebly promoted the benefits of drinking hot, boiled water. But the majority was still poor, so giving up precious fuel to heat water seemed senseless. And hot water turned into a line of merchandise and was carried by vendors on the shoulders with a pole, while they patrolled alleys and yelled for a sale.

As time went on to the PRC era, the government continued to emphasize boiling water. Though the living situation had not exactly improved, this time, the authority was able to provide hot water to the public, building huge boilers in every village and neighborhood and distributing hot water to every family for free.

This centralized water supply lasted until the 1970s. Some urban dwellers kept relying on public water until the 90s when state-owned companies finally went bankrupt, hence stopping the supply. Nowadays, inside universities, you can still see colorful thermo-bottles are carried by students on their way to the little foggy room with rows of taps.

Although recently Chinese young people have shown tremendous tolerance with cold drinks, it will still be a long way for the country to consume as much as the West. And to be honest, as a Chinese, I will only allow myself to indulge in the icy and commercially sweetened, colored and chemicalized drinks once in a while.