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Old Wives’ Tales

Long underwear: a woolen line of defense against arthritis?

05·12·2016

Old Wives’ Tales

Long underwear: a woolen line of defense against arthritis?

05·12·2016

“I forbid my staff from wearing long underpants, even in winter,” Su Mang, fashion editor and aspiring style icon (时尚教母 shíshàng jiāomǔ), pompously declared. Su has made a mark with her slogan “off with the underpants!” She’s not kidding either: if she spots a staffer wearing unsightly johns to work, she fires the pathetic peon immediately.

Su’s mission to eradicate the homely thermals is motivated by something grander than her sartorial sense; she thinks it’s a matter of national honor. “If you go to Europe wearing your old-fashioned underpants, you’re humiliating China. The Europeans will laugh at us. ” Our lady of vogue abhors long johns because they’re impossibly hick (土得掉渣 tǔde diàozhā). Even in the coldest days of winter, Su wears her skirts bare-legged and proud. “Only the elderly Chinese wear long underwear,” she said. “The Europeans never do.” Her outspoken attitude on the subject has earned her a nickname: Long Johns Mang (秋裤芒 Qiūkù Máng). Under Su’s command, more and more young people are tossing out their long underwear, in secret and in public view. As the icy northern wind blows, young girls strut the streets with only stockings covering their shapely legs. The men wear just one layer of jeans, to show off their modern brand of manliness.

Older Chinese scoff at the young and fashionable. “When they’re old, they’ll learn their lesson,” Kong Nainai, an 85-year-old granny, said ruefully. “They’ll feel the age, first in the legs. If you don’t keep warm when you’re young, laohantui (老寒腿, literally ‘cold old legs,’ or arthritis) will get you when you’re old.”  Granny Kong is very healthy, save for her legs. She has suffered from arthritis for more than ten years. There’s no cure for this common ailment, only prevention. “Sometimes I can’t sleep at night; the pain is torture,” she winces. “Do you know why I have arthritis? I couldn’t afford thick quilted pants in the winter when I was young. I had no money to buy underpants. That’s what gave me bad knees.”

Now, granny has plenty of long underwear, made from cashmere, wool, cotton and other suitably insulating materials. She pulls her long johns on 300 days a year. “Keeping warm is very important.” Perhaps Granny Kong is just a worry wart who underestimates the healthy physiques of China’s well-fed younger generations? After all, the long john-less fashion followers are in their prime, sturdy and strong. The experts—traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors—don’t seem to think so. According to TCM theory, keeping warm in the lower limbs can help heat the whole body (下肢暖, 全身益 Xiàzhī nuǎn, quánshēn yì). Thus, if you have the winter chills, cover up your legs and lower back, as these are the sensitive areas. Catching cold makes you especially vulnerable to illness. Dr. Han Jingwen, a TCM doctor in Dongzhimen Hospital, explained, “In TCM, we say ‘a hundred diseases originate from the cold’ (百病由寒生 Bǎibìng yóu hán shēng). If you aren’t careful about staying warm, you can easily catch a chill (受寒 shòuhán).

Over time, the cold inside your body manifests as blocked qi (气结 qìjié), causing stagnation in your circulatory system.” Sounds serious, but are the cold and stagnant qi really responsible for arthritis? According to Dr. Han, they are. “Once the cold enters the human body, it can cause chronic illnesses, such as arthritis. Many of my patients get arthritis because they did not keep warm in low temperature environments. In general, I advise people to wear underpants to keep body heat and drive cold and dampness away. ”

Clearly, the TCM practitioners here are against Su’s foolhardy casting off of her long underwear. But is cold-induced arthritis just a symptom of the Chinese? What about westerners (including those in China who are perpetually scandalizing the Chinese elderly with their inappropriate usage of shorts and slippers in the fall)? Are they afflicted?

Dr. Tang Shulan, who has practiced TCM in England for more than fifteen years, gave her thoughts on the dowdy undergarments, “In my experience, one in fifty people in the UK suffer from rheumatoid arthritis alone. This doesn’t include osteo-arthritis and other forms.” she reports. “Many people think it’s a disease without hope; as one paper put it, ‘the cause is unknown and there is no cure.’ In TCM, it is thought that arthritis is closely related to the cold, wind and dampness. So, young ladies, if you don’t want to get arthritis in the future, wear woolen underpants now.”

Stay au courant or bundle up? Tough choice, but the whereas la mode comes and goes, health is everlasting. I cherish my long johns, as my granny does. And you?

Cover image from youxibao.com