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Why do Chinese people drink hot water?

Sunday, December 5, 2010 | By:

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If you’ve lived in China and in the West, I’m sure you’ve noticed the contrast. Meals in the West tend to come with tall glasses of ice water. Meals in China come with tiny cups of hot water, or tea. Tea, of course, has been a part of China’s culture for millenia, but why the hot water?

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there are a number of answers to this question. Some people report that their parents taught them to drink hot water with meals, because mixing cold liquids with hot meals is bad for the stomach. Others go further into the “science” of it, alleging that cold liquids solidify fats in your stomach, which can cause digestive problems, whereas hot liquids aid in digestion. Still others cite the habit as having stemmed from the traditional need to boil water before drinking it to remove germs (and indeed, even today, you’re probably going to get sick if you don’t boil Chinese tapwater before drinking it). Most people, though, will probably give you the same answer I just got from a friend: “It’s good for your health.”

That may be true, but from a scientific standpoint, it appears that neither the cold water fanatics nor China’s hot water purists have much of a case. According to this article from Snopes.com about the issue, everything you eat and drink matches your internal body temperature fairly quickly once it’s in your stomach, and cold liquids do not “solidify fats” as anything solid is broken by the stomach’s powerful acids.

More interesting is that in the process of researching this, I discovered Chinese people are just as curious about why Westerners would drink cold water as we are about why Chinese traditionally drink hot water. Here are a few theories I discovered on Chinese message boards:

  • Westerners like to eat “raw” food (this belief comes from the fact that some people like to eat rare steak) so they also prefer their water “raw” (i.e., unheated).
  • Because it’s annoying to wait for boiled water to cool off before you start drinking (or burn your mouth).
  • “Because foreigners think hot water is only for coffee and tea.”
  • Because in foreign countries you can drink water directly from the tap rather than having to boil it.
  • Because foreigners aren’t used to drinking hot water!

I suspect that the real answers have more to do with history than they do with science anyway. Americans (for example) have been drinking tapwater directly for decades, so there’s no need to boil water. But Chinese tapwater needs to be boiled first. Will these habits change, then, as bottled water becomes more popular in China and as tapwater becomes safer to drink? Who knows!

Why do you drink cold or hot water?

Did you like Charlie Custer’s article? We have over 100 more by this prolific blogger in our website!

Now that you’ve figured out the hot water thing, have you ever wondered Why Do Chinese People Eat Snakes, Ants, and Worms for Medicine?

Here are some our recommended books on Chinese medicinal cooking:

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27 Responses to Why do Chinese people drink hot water?

  1. @neewbi says:

    i’m a convert to drinking hot water. but it took me two years in china for it to happen.

    being hot, it forces you to drink it is sips — you can’t drink a whole lot at once like you can with room temperature tap water or cold water.

    my theory is, because of this, it is less of a shock to your body.

    ie. lots of small sips over a longer period of time vs. big gulps at much longer intervals.

    a big gulp of cold water is a shock to my body anyway.

    • C. Custer says:

      Interesting. Personally, I’ll drink whatever’s put in front of me, but I prefer cold water to hot. For some reason, it just feels more thirst-quenching to me

    • Harun says:

      So taking a fully belly meal is a big shock for body. When someone takes water the amount is balanced by brain and stomach . So it can not a logic of taking hot water.

    • Tony says:

      Hi, I have read a lot about this over the past hour mainly to find statistical data of preference between warm or room temp water vs cold water. The information here and else where says nothing scientific. Just dome wannabes throwing the work science around as if their some professor researching this topic. The fact is the answer to these questions can be answered by someone who has pharmaceutical knowledge. The fact is when consuming warm water regardless of meal time it slows down digestion and increases the absorption and hence bioavailability of whatever is being consumed. Cold water on the other hand speeds gastric emptying and reduces absorption of whatever is being consumed. This is fact that can be backed up in any pharmaceutical science text book. The fact that Chinese medicine and herbal products (your vitamin supplememts) are mostly poorly absorbed gives merit to the Chinese tradition of drinking hot/warm water. Some have suggested that drinking any water at all is bad during a meal. There us some truth to this but realistically who doesn’t drink during a meal? So if you are drinking it is better to drink a warm beverage.

  2. Freddie says:

    I have had my fair share of spicy food in China, and cold water combats spicyness a great deal better than hot water does. Or so it seems. As for the science behind it, my chinese host used to tell me that cold water lowered your overall body temperature, and so leads to colds and fever!

  3. Lynn says:

    I’ve lived in America my whole life, but my grandparents live in China, and we visit every two years, for a month or two. It’s true that they usually drink hot water. First of all, Chinese people have a special type of medicine/health beliefs, called zhongyi. It says that children have yangqi and adults have yinqi (yin and yang!! you’ve heard of it (: ), which means children have more of a warm aura and adults need more warm water.

  4. kaleem says:

    until a month ago, I have always drunk cold water, nothing but cold water. I got this internship at a telecommunicati on company and I noticed my boss to instruct the handy man to bring her hot water. At that moment I thought, is she out of her mind or something. Who drinks hot water. Later on that day, I did some research and came to know, apparently hot water is way better than cold water. And I’ve drinking warm water since. That’s quite hard to digest for other people because they would consider you mad or say he or she has some fruit loops loose, but believe you me, warm water does the trick. It helps you losing the weight, it slows down the aging process and helps in digestion. What else do you want, a healthy life. I am happy.

  5. Gaby says:

    I was told that drinking hot water was a sign of wealth in China like in the states ice water was a sign of wealth.
    In the states if you had ice water you could afford an ice box to keep it cold and in China if you were rich enough you could afford to heat your water.

  6. Joy says:

    What an interesting post! I am a enthusiastic participant of the hot water drinking curiosity. Especially at American restaurants in the States, my obliging waiter or waitress usually attempts to hide her confusion at my request, but for the raised eyebrows. Personally, I’m a very “cold” person. Drinking hot water enables me to garter some internal warmth without the dismaying result of stained teeth from previous habits of tea drinking.

  7. Jane Lael says:

    I drink like the Chinese—only hot/warm drinks with meals. Digestion happens only at 105 degrees,
    so dumping cold or icy water into the stomach can slow or stop digestion—as the blood organs
    must work hard to warm up the cold stomach contents. To experience how this happens,
    leave a drink of icy water in your mouth until it warms to even 98.6 degrees! Americans drink
    lots of icy beverages with their meals, and are the world’s top consumers of digestive aids.
    Once again, the Chinese tradition is more healthy.

    • Dave says:

      I’m sorry Jane, but your stomach heats water much faster than your mouth does, it’s simple anatomy. Regardless, it is an urban myth that digestion only happens at a single temperature. In addition, 98.6 degrees is not the mode temperature that most people are, it is the mean temperature. Please stop speaking half-truths and misconceptions, it makes my job as a medical doctor that much more difficult.

      • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

        Doesn’t cold constrict blood vessels and heat dilate blood vessels? So wouldn’t it follow that dumping mass quantities of frigid ice water into your body constrict the blood vessels in your stomach thereby hindering it’s performance in digesting food. While drinking warm water would dilate the blood vessels and enhance stomach function? People in the west, particularly in the American Fat Belt drink iced beverages from huge containers such as the Big Gulp. You mean to tell me that drinking large volumes of iced fluid in one sitting from a Big Gulp has zero negative effect on digestion? Anyway, the Chinese theory is not saying that digestion can’t occur at different temperatures, but rather that the body has to work harder to achieve its optimal temperature to digest.

        • Trevor B says:

          Keoni,
          digestion doesn’t happen in the stomach. The stomach is full of acids that break down the foods and makes it so the intestines can absorb nutrients easier.
          As the author of the article stated, the liquid reaches the same temperature in the stomach pretty quickly.
          The fact that Americans are unhealthy has less to do with the fact they drink cold beverages and more to do with an overall diet. The good thing about drinking hot things is that you take sips, you cant down a glass of hot water like you can a cold pop, for example.

          • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

            Wrong Trevor, digestion technically starts in the mouth with the chewing of food and contact with saliva. The saliva begins starch digestion and once the food reaches the stomach, protein digestion begins. A number of important phases of the digestion process must have already occurred before it can reach the small intestine.
            To return to the core question of this article, I think part of the answer why Chinese people drink hot water is contextual. Because Chinese food is often cooked with a large quantity of oil, it really seems to help wash the grease down with hot water or hot tea as opposed to a cold beverage. Over the past twenty years of eating Chinese food with both cold and hot beverages, I found personally that I would develop heartburn and indigestion a lot more after drinking cold beverages.

          • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

            Drinking eight-ounces of ice water the recommended eight times a day will require your body to burn 70 calories to heat up the water. Chinese medicine is about reducing subtle strains on your body over long periods of time to avoid cumulative damage. Why make your body waste the extra energy to heat ice water to body temperature when you could drink warmer water that will cause less stress on your system?

  8. Feraydun says:

    Well, I have an interesting fact to add to that conclusion. (i.e. : Will these habits change, then, as bottled water becomes more popular in China and as tapwater becomes safer to drink? Who knows!)
    I am actually living in Mainland China and my Chinese girlfriend is slowly taking the habit drinking bottled water (as opposed to boiled water when I met her). To my own surprise, this summer, we went on a trip and while I was taking my bottle directly from the shelves, she surprised me by picking her bottle from the fridge!
    Her explanation was that warm water kept her warm during winter and that that summer was simply too hot to drink anything else than cold beverage!
    Oh well…

    Oh, and by the wway Neewbi, You are totally right, I am also a converted! I’ll poor one for you! Gangbei!

  9. Luke says:

    Cool water, always. I generate enough body heat anyway. Last thing I need is something to make me feel hotter and stuffier.

  10. SCY says:

    I feel well when I drink hot water, especially in the early morning. It’s comfortable and brings warmth to the stomach and to the body. But I think it’s good to drink “warm water”, but not “burning water”. One friend said to me that Chinese drink and eat too hot, that’s why many of them have stomach problems. – Chinese in France

    • Gurbir Maroke says:

      As experiment if we put food we eat in a pot with hot water and same in cold water.we will see that food in hot water even fried food will dissolve faster than in cold water.I guess food will digest faster if we drink hot water after we eat.

  11. Malte horsch says:

    Hi, what do you think of the idea, of warming up a bit of cold water in your mouth before swallowing it (just keep it in your mouth a minute or two), so your stomage doesn´t get irritated etc. (in the case you don´t have warm water at hand)

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      Yes, I think that’s a good stopgap measure if warm water isn’t available.

      • Malte horsch says:

        谢谢 :)

  12. Sam says:

    We drink hot water in India more because we believe it aids in digestion. I am an asthmatic, doctors here ask us to drink hot water because it relives the congestion. I think drinking hot water with food could also be related here. When we drink spicy or hot foods our congestion in the lungs clears naturally, so when we drink normal water maybe it will be like a shock to the system, so perhaps thatz why we drink hot or warm water.

  13. Kenneth Gilliland says:

    Very Interesting, when I was in the hospital to have a Liver Transplant, a nurse came in to draw some blood, and as she was getting ready, she noticed that I was drinking Ice Water, so she says to me, I don’t know about the hard science behind this, but I heard its healthier to drink hot or warm warm, and ever since then I drink a lot of hot tea, with a cup of cold water on the side, just in case I choke !

  14. John Lee says:

    China is so big, at high lands like Tibet, you will get sick even though you drank boiled water at that altitude, because the water never gets to its boiling point due to low air pressure.
    I am a nursing student in Hong Kong and I learnt Chinese Medicine. In Chinese Medicine, drinking hot water strengthens our body and hence prevents illness. The Chinese Medicinal theory is that drinking hot water forms a stronger ‘Qi’ around our body, which acts like a protective shield(for your easy understanding) to prevent microbes from entering your body.
    By ‘hot’ it does not mean drinking boiling water. ‘Hot water’ means water that has reached boiling point for a while(which kills most of the microbes, especially harmful ones), then leave it to warm temperature and drink.

    However, not everyone is suitable for drinking hot water in the school of thoughts of Chinese Medicine.

    Do not be a racist. There are other places on earth where things are more dirty and lazy about cleaniness. Chinese are hardworking and productive. When I went to Paris, their hotels are cleaned every WEEK! Bed bugs are common in the UK, as reported by the news and the fact that I was bitten by them there. O M F G, that would NEVER happen in China.

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      I agree with your sentiments John Lee and your explanation from a Qi standpoint. Unfortunately, bed bugs have made it to Beijing: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2013/09/night-night-dont-let-the-bedbugs-bite And, one of our interns suffered the consequences first hand: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2013/09/a-chinese-hospital-misadventure/

  15. Lim Lynn says:

    Actual fact is when you drink [cold] ice drinks will cause yourself get more cold and flu. Moreover, it’s traditional Chinese medicine explain that.