The History Behind China’s Obsession With Hot Water
This article is the fourth in a series examining how certain Chinese traditions are being adapted to modern tastes. Parts one, two, and three can be found here.
China’s love affair with hot water is well-known. These days, tourist destinations around the world are flooded with Chinese travelers bearing backpacks loaded with sloshing vacuum-sealed flasks. Age is no barrier when it comes to the country’s unquenchable thirst for throat-scalding liquid: Young and old alike are united in their appetite for refreshment served at lip-blisteringly warm temperatures, perhaps with a twist of goji berries, ginseng, or chrysanthemum flowers.
The thermos is to the hot water devotee what the mohawk is to the punk rocker, what the polo neck sweater is to the art student. Chinese social media recently fizzed with discussion when Zhao Mingyi, the 50-year-old drummer in the hugely popular ’90s rock band Black Panther, was seen carrying a thermos in a photo posted to microblogging platform Weibo. “I couldn’t believe it!” the post read. “This onetime tough guy was coming toward me with a thermos clutched in his hands!”
As China has modernized, food and drink that were once novelties have become widely consumed. Chinese people have grown used to the creaminess of milk and the complexity of red wine. They’re happy to chow down on cheese, bite into broccoli, and eviscerate avocados. Cold water, however, is a bridge too far. Why?
Since at least the fourth century B.C., traditional Chinese medicine classified both hot and cold beverages as “functional drinks.” The former was used to expel excess humidity and cold from the body, while the latter was said to cool the body down.
However, in ancient China, poor living standards meant that most ordinary Chinese focused much more on keeping warm and dry than on cooling off. Fuel was expensive, and for the poor, hot water was a luxury item reserved for society’s most vulnerable, such as pregnant women, the elderly, and the infirm. Poor refrigeration also made storing ice exceptionally difficult. Traditionally, only high-ranking officials and the social elite could enjoy iced drinks. During the Zhou Dynasty, the imperial family even had a special team of civil servants tasked with harvesting ice during winter.
As traditional medicine became broadly accepted across society, Chinese people developed an abiding faith in the beneficial health effects of hot water. By the 1830s, people in more prosperous areas near the Yangtze River Delta had come to view it as a necessity, and hot water stores known as laohuzao, or “tiger stoves,” popped up in major cities all over the region. The hot water they sold was not just for drinking, but for washing, too.
In 1850, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in eastern China. By 1862, an estimated 1.5 million refugees had crowded into Shanghai. In May that year, cholera broke out in the city. At its height, the disease was responsible for 3,000 deaths per day. Not long afterward, the epidemic spread north, eventually reaching Beijing.
The south remained untouched, however. Folk knowledge dictated that this was because southerners drank more hot water than northerners. While at the time, traditional Chinese medicine was as widely accepted in northern China as it was in the south, people residing in the country’s lower latitudes were comparatively wealthier and had long practiced the habit of taking their water hot.
Research eventually showed that the epidemic was actually spread northward by mail boats traveling between Shanghai and Beijing. However, people at the time had no way of knowing this, and exaggerated tales of the powers of hot water soon spread across the country by word of mouth. No longer was hot water just a way to improve one’s health; it was now a matter of life and death.
In 1934, the ruling Kuomintang government launched the New Life Movement. Chiang Kai-shek, who himself hailed from the Yangtze Delta region, and his wife Soong Mei-ling, who was born in Shanghai, gave the popular belief in the power of hot water an official imprimatur, raising it to the status of national policy.
In its “Essentials of the New Life Movement,” the Kuomintang issued guidelines on proper attire, eating habits, living conditions, and traffic rules. In the section on food, it sought to educate the masses to drink boiled water. The guidelines claimed that the practice could prevent the growth of bacteria and the spread of diseases such as dysentery. Those who could responded enthusiastically, making great efforts to drink boiled water and give up uncooked food. However, the ongoing wars and the inability of the government to assert administrative control meant that, in practice, its efforts to universalize the consumption of boiled water achieved only limited success.
Prior to the New Life Movement, however, the Chinese Communist Party had already begun advocating the consumption of hot water in soviets under its control. If soldiers were not provided with boiled water, they could take the matter up with their superiors, while soldiers found drinking unboiled water would be verbally chastised.
During the Yan’an period, the Red Army further promoted the consumption of hot water. Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other top leaders could often be seen with a cup of hot water, leading to the widespread popularity of enamel mugs.
After the Communists reunified China in 1949, large numbers of Party cadres fanned out across the country, taking their mugs and preference for hot water with them. In 1952, during the Patriotic Health Campaign, the government again advocated the consumption of boiled water, plastering school walls with slogans declaring that “Children should cultivate the habit of drinking boiled water three times a day!”
Today, almost every government body, business, and school administrative office in China boasts a hot water dispenser. The nation’s high-speed trains, a source of pride for many Chinese, are all required to have water dispensers capable of providing piping hot water at a moment’s notice. Water bottles may be optional at high-level meetings in China, but a teacup isn’t, and there are often servers tasked with patrolling the room to ensure that nobody goes without hot water. One of the most important standards Chinese people use when judging an organization or facility is whether or not hot water is accessible at all times.
Today, however, Chinese young people are increasingly enamored with filtered or sparkling water, energy drinks, and imported alcohol, most of which are best served cold. Western-influenced food and fitness regimes have also encouraged youngsters to eschew hot water in favor of cold. And — most tragically of all — the sight of a middle-aged former rock star dutifully carrying a thermos is now mocked as a symbol of a midlife crisis.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A cat climbs on a stove at a teahouse in Chengdu, Sichuan province, July 19, 2012. VCG)