For foreigners, the idea of reaching for a glass of hot water in the summer might seem a little odd. But rest assured, the average Chinese person has the same feeling about reaching for ice water.
According to one tale, a Chinese couple entered a café in Britain and thoroughly confused the waitress by insisting they be given a glass of hot water – an alien request on the Sceptered Isle.
But in China, it couldn’t be more opposite.
Last December, five people were waiting in line patiently in front of the water dispenser in Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport. Two of them were holding bowls of instant noodles and the others their own water bottles. No one pressed any button other than “Hot Water.”
Commentators have struggled for years to explain the wildly different beverage preferences of Chinese and foreigners. While definitive answers remain elusive, varying hypotheses include industrialization, dining habits, historical reasons, water quality and traditional medicine.
Chinese parents always tell their children not to drink cold tap water. The reason they give is that tap water contains lots of germs, so the water must be boiled. However, people in France not only rarely drink hot water, but prefer cold tap water to bottled water. A poll of French water drinkers found that 80 percent of respondents drank tap water at least once a week. Few reported it making them sick.
In the US, the trend is similar.
“Most people think bottled water is healthier than tap water, but that is not true. Actually, tap water even tastes better,” said an energy researcher at University of California, Davis.
American TV has featured many water quality tests that challenge participants to distinguish between tap and bottled water: tap water almost always wins the taste test.
While the tap water in China’s major cities has its bacteria levels tested 100 times each month, the FDA only requires water bottling plants to test their water once a week.
Still, most Chinese dare not drink tap water without boiling it.
According to the historical record, another explanation may be the ancient water containers from the Xia dynasty. The cauldron-like creations had feet that made them simple to boil.
Such containers are only found in Ancient China – the vessels used by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians could only be used for storing water. It may be that a lack of containers designed for boiling water prevented foreigners from developing
Because ancient westerners did not invent the similar containers with legs like China, so they did not form a habit of drinking boiled water.
If you ask a doctor of Chinese medicine why foreigners drink cold or ice water, the answer is because foreigners eat beef, lamb and fish, as well as bacon, cheese and butter. These are calorie-rich foods that, in the view of Chinese medicine, cause inflammation and heat. To balance that out, foreigners use ice water as a fire extinguisher.
According to the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, “‘Yang’ energies (hot things) are the root of the human body.”
According to this theory, the temperature of hot water can warm organs and cultivate yang energy in the human body. However, cold water is the complete opposite, lowering the temperature of human organs and driving cold energy into the body and causing illness.
That theory extends beyond mere beverage choices to a gaggle of postnatal practices required of new mothers.
It’s hard to imagine a foreign hospital that would impose dietary restrictions on new mothers. Hospitals in Britain and the US routinely provide new mothers with cold fruit juice and ice cream.
In China, mothers are only allowed to eat foods such as hot porridge and chicken soup. Moreover, they are forbidden to touch anything cold – a painful challenge for summer moms.
Foreign women whose children are born through vaginal delivery typically leave the hospital within 24 hours. Those who require a Caesarian surgery may stay a little longer. Once they return home, friends and relatives begin their visits and no special care is required.
In China, any family who is able will hire a live-in maternity servant to ensure the mother doesn’t try to do anything sneaky like touch a cold object, walk out of the house or take a shower – things which, according to traditional medical theory, will deliver a lifelong crippling blow to the mother’s health.
For these seemingly odd rules, Chinese medicine once again offers an explanation.
Chinese medicine is based on a balance of all things, but especially of hot and cold. According to traditional theory, European type people have a “hot and humid” internal body condition. This heat is managed by their increased body hair, pore sizes and a preference for cold drinks.
But Chinese people mainly eat lighter foods, such as grains, rice and vegetables, putting them in a different state. Chinese medicine also claims that Chinese people have smaller bones. After giving birth, a women’s pores open and her bones loosen, creating openings where cold energy can slip into the body and cause lifelong problems.
Foreigners escape these problems through a diet rich in calcium and protein. According to the theory, the average foreigner has a stronger constitution. That together with the dietary differences shapes Chinese medicine and habit.