Many would consider this an odd sight, it is a sweltering 40°C day and the sun is beating down, you reach for your bottle only to find it filled with boiling hot water. This might seem odd to those from Europe or America, but for those from China this is simply business as usual. This story repeats itself nearly everywhere else, in the dead of winter or during the sweltering summer solstice, at restaurants, offices and cafes. What is the origin of this seemingly particular habit?
Drinking hot water in China is a time honoured tradition, developed nearly 2500 years ago during the Zhou dynasty (around 400-300 BC). In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that Hot Water, ironically, contained 陰 “Yīn” (Yin), which represent coolness or shade which was necessary to counteract 陽 “Yáng” (Yang). Another reason was that hot beverages were believed to expel humidity from the body, which was important for pregnant women, the elderly, and the sick. This connection between protecting and healing the weak gradually led the Chinese to link hot water with health.
Less Ancient History
In 1862, the devastating Taiping rebellion had raged for over 10 years. Nearly two million refugees had swarmed to Shanghai in search of protection. In May of 1862, a devastating Cholera outbreak occurred in Shanghai and during its peak killed nearly 3000 people a day. Soon the Cholera spread north, eventually reaching the capital of Beijing. Whilst modern research now shows that the cause of the northward spread was due to transportation on the Grand Canal, superstition at the time held that because Southerners mostly drank boiled water while Northerners did not, the consumption of hot water was what spared the south from cholera. Now, drinking hot water was not only a matter of maintaining one’s health, it was the only way to ensure that one did not meet a grisly end courtesy of cholera.
Semi Modern History
In the 1930s, the KMT which overthrew the Qing dynasty, attempted to build a “modern” Chinese culture. Chiang Kai-shek, who hailed from the Yangtze Delta, and his wife Soong Mei-ling, who was born in Shanghai, both saw the consumption of hot water as something that could prevent disease. They made the drinking of hot water national policy by including it as a part of the New Life movement and the drinking of hot water was adopted by all levels of government and eventually trickled down to the entire population.
The Communist party also saw the benefits of hot water. To prevent attrition by dysentery during the Red Armie’s Long March through the subtropical jungle of Yunnan, it became the military’s policy to only allow the drinking of hot water. Soldiers who drank cold water would be punished for it! When the Communist’s reached Yan’an the Red Army further promoted the consumption of hot water. The leaders of the CCP like Mao Ze Dong or Zhu De were often seen going to meetings with enamel mugs of hot water and the cadres who attended these meetings often brought these habits back to their units. After the CCP liberated China, millions of party cadres fanned out across China, each bringing their mugs (and the habit of drinking hot water across China) and the habit of drinking hot water became nearly universal.
Today drinking hot water has, through thousands of years of history, become an instrumental part of Chinese culture. There are also practical reasons behind this habit. In China, tap water is not filtered sufficiently to be drunk as it is not sterilized, or purified, and may carry hazardous contaminants like sediments, rusts, bacteria, virus, chlorines, or other heavy metals). This water can be purified by boiling it which is why Chinese people often take their water hot. Even if you don’t believe in the health benefits of hot water, when in China, you really should consider drinking hot water to prevent a nasty bout of sickness during your trip.
Live in China? Here are some Hutong water tips.
- Bottled water: You can get bottled mineral water for as little as CNY 2. Quality popular brands include Nongfu Spring, Nestle, C’estbon, Evian, Kunlun Mountains, and Wahaha.
Filtered water: Green companies, such as Greenwave, have introduced installable filters which can make the tap water drinkable (they even have them for showerheads!)
- Cooled down boil water: Called 凉白开”Liángbáikāi” (cooled water), this involves boiling the water and then letting it cool, this way the water is safe and you still get to enjoy it cooled.