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    NJ native without the accent or the big hair. Currently residing in Beijing. Teaching English. Absorbing all things China. Exploring SE Asia.

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You’d better eat some cold foods

Laowai Chinese talks about his search for a good transliteration of 上火 (shàng huǒ) after his class decided that having 上火 was the source of a girl’s choking.  After reading this I asked my students to explain 上火 to me on the back of the quizzes I gave them on Thursday.  There was an immediate class-wide eruption of “bu shi” (much as Laowai Chinese describes in his post) mid-quiz as the students loudly discussed and debated in Chinese amongst themselves.

Here’s what I got from my Junior 2 class (8th grade equivalent):

Sharon: There’s too much hot things in your body and you didn’t drink lots of water or eat any cold food, then you got Shang Huo.

Peter: Yang.  It’s the opposite to Yin.

Alice: Have too much yang in your body.

Simon: Have too much yang, the opposite to yin.

Wendy: You have too much yang.  You can have this by eating a lot of hot food.

Julia #1: Ate too much chocolate or drank too much soft drink.

Donna: Have too much yang.  You may not eat anything very hot when you are “shang huo.”  Drink some tea and eat some pears is good for this.

Jennifer: If you eat too much red meat or junk food, then you’ll be unhealthy like get some sore throat.  (That’s not serious actually, drinking more water will cure that.)

Lee: It’s an uncomfortable feeling you get when you have too much energy in your body and you haven’t found a way to let it out.  It would probably result in a sore throat, you might feel hard to calm down.

Charlie: Too much yang.  It means that you have some problem such as a sore throat, may you get this.  When you get inflammation somewhere, you may have too much yang.  Drink more water and don’t eat oranges.

Christina: On fire.

Janis: Have too much yang.

Billy: Too stressed out or you ate too much “yang” food like beef or mutton.  You should eat vegetables and fruit or “yin” food like tofu.

James: It has something to do with the balance inside your body.

Eric: You have too much hot in your body and you should drink a lot of water.

Julia #2: Chinese doctors think everything should be yin or yang.  If you eat too much yang food like mutton or orange too much or the weather is too hot, people will get too much yang and you’ll get Shang Huo.

Casey: Have too mch yang.  Be angry with something.  Or maybe you eat too many yang food like beef, pepper and some hot food.

Linda: Have too much yang.  Eat too much beef.  Should drink more water, eat tofu, don’t eat spicy food.

Anne: Too much Yang (things like beef, dangshan, huanggi).  You should eat Yin food (like tofu).

Sunny: You have too much Yang in your body.  And your body inside often get hot.  You make have sore throat, or your tongue sometimes hurts.  Have some medicine and tea or tofu, it may help you to feel better.

Heaton: Maybe you always feel very hot in your body.  And always feel very stressed out, get nervous.

Diana: Too much yang.  Because you eat too much beef or junk food.  Your organs are like on fire.

Now I’m sure this has prompted a myriad of questions in the minds of my Western readers.  Isn’t yin and yang that black and white circle that people wear on a T-shirt or get tattooed?  What are “hot foods?”  What is balance in the body?  I’m going to attempt to explain a tricky and deep-rooted part of Chinese culture in this post.  My apologies if I mis-explain anything; Chinese friends, please correct any errors.

We consider traditional Chinese medicine (中医) to be alternative medicine in the West and it’s usually not covered by insurance, but TCM is mainstream over here in East Asia.  Chinese recognize Western medicinal practices as curing symptoms but credit TCM with treating the whole person, which drives out the disease or illness.  TCM is used to maintain health (promote a healthy appendix) and Western medicine is used in times of emergency (appendicitis) and Chinese don’t generally see the two as being in conflict.  Let’s look at a few things to figure the concept of 上火.

Qi (气) can be translated as a flow of energy through any living thing.  Wikipedia says this about the difficulty in finding an adequate translation: “There are many uses of the term ‘qi’ in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, but it’s an imprecise concept of which the best, non-poetic translation is probably ‘stuff.’” In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) qi circulates through the body in pathways called meridians.  When these pathways are blocked or unbalanced, disease symptoms manifest themselves and people feel sick.  TCM uses various methods to unblock or re-balance qi in the body, such as acupuncture, massage, herbs, diet, or physical exercise like tai chi.  Qi divination is the goal of feng shui (meaning “wind water”), where the belief is that arrangement of space can affect the dweller’s health, wealth, energy, and luck in life.

Enter yin yang (阴阳).  Yin yang explains or describes dueling or opposing forces in the world.  Everything in life has yin yang opposites and many of these relationships are evident in nature: dark/light, male/female, low/high, summer/winter, rich/poor, good/evil, etc.  Yin yang are always present together in tandem, opposing one another, such as a relationship formed between a male and a female or birth and death in the seasons of life.  While qi is a life force, yin yang is not an actual force.  Yin yang describes natural occurrences and is a philosophy of dualism.

  • These things symbolize yin (literally “shady place” or “north slope”): black, female, receptive, yielding, negative, nurturing, nighttime, valleys, rivers, streams, water, metal, earth, soft, slow, insubstantial, diffuse, cold, wet, tranquil, birth.
  • These things symbolize yang (literally “sunny place” or “south slope”): white, male, active, dominating, positive, initiating, creating, daytime, mountains, hills, fire, wood, air, hard, fast, solid, dry, focused, hot, aggressive.

Now that we understand the basic Chinese concepts of a life force (qi) and dualism (yin yang), let’s introduce food to the mix.  Do you remember the students mentioning hot and cold foods at the very beginning of this post?  You are now armed with enough knowledge to guess that the Chinese also classify various foods as being hot and cold, or rather yin yang.

The balance of these foods is essential in promoting uninterrupted flow of qi throughout the body.  Yang foods increase the body’s heat and yin foods decrease heat, or we could say that these foods raise and lower metabolism.  Too much hot food (yang) can result in a fever, acne, bad breath, coughing, anger, or sore throat so Chinese suggest upping the intake of cool foods (yin) and staying away from those shang huo-inducing yang foods.  A diet lacking yin food might result in lethargy or anemia.

  • Yang food: chili pepper, deep fried food, dried meat, lychee, mango, pineapple, cherry.  Generally, yang foods are energy dense (especially in fat).
  • Yin foods: watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, green tea, tofu.  Generally, yin foods have a high water content.

Advertisement for a Chinese drink that claims to minister to yang imbalance

Note: after my students bu shi’d each other over an acceptable translation of shang huo there was a renewed flurry of bu shi going around as they tried to tell me which foods were yin and which were yang.

But wait, people can have yin yang types, too!  If a person is neutral, he will only have reactions to yin or yang foods if he gorges or overeats on a certain kind of food.  If a person is a yang individual then he can eat all yin food without much consequence but yang food could result in a small health problem like a sore throat or bloody nose.  Yin types, however, are generally unhealthy and will react to yin or yang food.  They need foods that are classified as boosting foods or nourishing foods to restore their health.

So now we return to 上火 (shàng huǒ), which can be roughly understood as a yang inbalance resulting in the need to expel internal heat.  Being shang huo means elevated yang in the body, not a high thermal temperature.  If you’re healthy you must have good yin yang balance in your body.  Congratulations – you can rest assured in your qi!

Whew.  Some things in Chinese culture are very difficult to define in English or even find a dynamic equivalent to because they are so far outside of a Westerner’s frame of reference or ability to understand without a thorough culture lesson.  Next time a Chinese friend tells me to eat some cool foods to help my cold, I’ll just nod and smile and go eat some watermelon.  I like watermelon and some things aren’t worth arguing over if they aren’t going to hurt me.  ☺

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6 Responses

  1. Wow! Very thorough indeed. I love that “bú shì bashing” goes on everywhere in China. Except, down here in the nánfāng it’s usually “bú sì!”

  2. Julie,
    That was a great post. It wasn’t until my 3rd year that I began to figure out a little bit of what you were saying. But that helped me understand a lot!

  3. Hi, cool post. I have been thinking about this issue,so thanks for blogging. I will likely be subscribing to your blog. Keep up great writing

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