Are you wondering why Chinese people drink hot water, and do a bunch of other interesting things?
Living in your home country, you’re probably exposed to people from China and might notice a few oddities in what they do and eat.
But that’s completely different to what you’ll experience when you actually spend some time in China.
When I was there, I saw some behaviors that seemed downright bizarre and completely inexplicable.
But the key to enjoying a foreign country isn’t necessarily to understand, but to try to understand why the differences exist.
So, with that in mind, here are some of the more interesting things you’ll see in China, starting with why they’re obsessed with drinking hot water.
Why do Chinese people drink hot water?
In Western countries, it’s often the mark of a good restaurant, host, or café to have refrigerated water available for people to drink or to consume during meals.
But in China, this custom is completely reversed.
Chinese people believe that drinking cold water is unhealthy. They prefer to drink hot or warm water all year round.
The main reason has to do with traditional Chinese medicine.
The health benefits
In traditional medicine, the human body is made up of two elements and energies known as yin and yang. For good health, these elements must exist in balance.
In this system, when the body becomes too yang or too yin, illness can occur.
The best way to get rid of the extra yin or yang energy is by consuming foods or drinks with the opposite energy.
Hot water is a yin drink, so it naturally balances out too much yang energy, restores good health and aids in blood circulation.
Also, many Chinese people believe that sweating increases your metabolism, and drinking hot water can help with that.
This custom has existed since around 4 BC, so clearly there are some benefits to it!
Poor living standards in ancient China meant that people were more focused on warming up than cooling down.
Storing ice was extremely difficult too, and only the very rich could afford this.
In more recent history, top leaders like Mao Zedong were often seen drinking hot water from enamel mugs, further reinforcing the preference for hot water over cold beverages.
Additionally, drinking tap water in China is unsafe, even today. So at home, people have a habit of always boiling the kettle and drinking hot tea and other hot drinks.
When you travel around China, you’ll see people carry insulated drink bottles wherever they go. Some are see-through and you’ll see all sorts of fancy tea and flavor enhancers floating inside.
It can take some getting used to if you’re from a Western country, where cold water is the norm.
The cure all?
Many Chinese believe that a glass of hot water cures everything.
When I was in China, if ever I wasn’t feeling well, my Chinese friends always told me to drink a cup of hot water:
- Got a cold or sore throat? Drink hot water
- How about a headache? Drink hot water
- Menstrual cramps? Drink hot water
- Sore back? Drink even more hot water!
I have to admit, it got old very quickly, but I understand the importance of this ‘cure all’ drink in Chinese culture.
There are some pretty funny discussions on Reddit about this very topic. Personally, I think the cold vs hot liquids debate will never go away!
The issue (for foreigners)
Finding cold drinks in China is hard.
Unless it’s in the middle of a boiling hot Chinese summer, you’ll find drinks fridges in China are usually switched off.
The locals prefer to drink their bottled water at room temperature. The vendors probably want to save money on electricity too, and you’ll see the fridges are in darkness (unless you go to a national chain like 7-11).
But all the other drinks in the fridge are room temperature too, like soda, sports drinks and even the ‘iced’ tea.
Similarly, most Chinese hotels don’t have those little bar fridges, though they will supply you with bottled drinking water which, of course, is unrefrigerated.
I find this really frustrating when traveling in China. Sometimes all I want is a cold drink!
New cold drink trends
In recent years, Chinese people (particularly those who are younger) are more inclined to try new drinks which are often cold or inspired by overseas trends and Western cultures.
For example, milk tea is now really popular in China, and you can choose how cold you want it.
Then there’s the explosion of coffee in all the major cities, and on a warm day the barista will ask you whether you want your latte served hot or cold.
Despite this, public water dispensers across China (like at airports and on high-speed trains) still only provide boiling hot water or, in some cases, room temperature water.
So, it looks like the high consumption of hot water isn’t changing anytime soon.
Why do Chinese babies wear open-crotch pants?
Also known as split pants or kāidāngkù (开裆裤) in Mandarin, these unique trousers for babies are a real eye-opener if you visit China.
The thick cotton pants make it easy for the baby to relieve themselves no matter where they are, or who is looking after them. The pants have an unsewn seam underneath.
The bub can be positioned over a toilet or – if nature calls quickly – over a gutter or garden bed. This shocks many foreigners who visit China.
In the past, disposable diapers weren’t available in China, so all babies wore open-crotch pants. But nowadays, babies in big cities are increasingly seen in diapers, and you’re more likely to spot a bub with its butt hanging out its pants in smaller cities and rural areas.
As mothers return to work, you’ll see grandmothers and aunts (known as ayi) hunched over babies during the middle of the day.
Mums and carers might even ‘mix and match’ so the baby sometimes wears split pants, while at other times wears disposable diapers.
It’s said that babies who grow up wearing split pants are potty trained more quickly than those who are used to doing their business in diapers.
Babies also learn to use their lug muscles as they squat down, an essential skill as Chinese adults use squat toilets on a daily basis.
A mother may only need a few pairs of open-crotch pants throughout the baby’s entire toddlerhood versus many hundreds of diapers.
So, when it comes to a cost and environmental standpoint, split pants are a clear winner.
Why do Chinese people wear face masks?
Chinese people were wearing face masks way before COVID-19 was a thing.
When Chinese people aren’t feeling well, they’ll wear a mask to stop the illness spreading. It also helps protect them from getting germs from other people.
People may also try to protect themselves if there’s a known bout of illness, such as cold or flu, spreading in the community.
That why it’s not unusual to see people wearing masks on public transport in Chinese cities, which can get really crowded.
In some of China’s more polluted cities, you’ll see people wearing face masks to protect themselves from the dirty air.
Air pollution can also irritate existing ailments like colds and infections. Because of this, the locals do everything they can to screen out these harmful toxins.
Another purpose for the mask is related more to women. Pale, porcelain-like skin is very popular in China.
So, when they spend time at the beach or anywhere outside, local women might wear a face mask called a facekini to prevent tanning.
This is often combined with a thin, hooded top that covers the upper body, arms and head.
If you ever get the chance to visit China, you might get to see a facekini at one of the popular beaches like those in Shenzhen.
Why do Chinese people paint trees white?
In China, you’ll often see trees in the city with their trunks painted white and bound together with rope.
This looks quite strange, but it’s actually very practical.
There’s a common story that this was a practice implemented by Chairman Mao to encourage uniform growth.
But in reality, it’s an age-old practice first used by Chinese arborists to protect the plants from pests and changing weather.
The white paint keeps out the pests and insulates the trees against the cold.
Why do Chinese people buy foreign baby formula?
There has been a huge increase in the amount of foreign baby formula bought in China.
Sales have gone up enormously in recent years, and there was a time when you would see women in pharmacies taking whole shelves of formula.
The problem started in 2008 when six infants died and hundreds of thousands got sick after drinking formula containing melamine.
Chinese people haven’t forgotten this, and combined with the perceived higher quality of overseas brands, sales of foreign baby formula keep skyrocketing.
Another reason for the popularity of baby formula is the rapid industrialization of the country.
Mothers in China now expect to go back to work early, which means that their children must go on formula.
Long-term breastfeeding is also uncommon among some Chinese women, who believe that breast milk is of low quality.
Why do Chinese people use chopsticks?
If you’ve grown up in a Western country, you’ll probably have trouble using chopsticks.
They’re fiddly, hard to control, and half the food tends to end up in your lap at first.
On the other hand, you’ll see very young children in China using chopsticks with casual ease and picking up everything without a single spill.
Chopsticks have been a part of Chinese culture since 1,200 BC.
Back then, they were used more for cooking and it wasn’t until around 400 AD that they were shortened and used to eat.
The appeal of chopsticks was probably deepened because of their connection to Confucius, one of the most important figures in Chinese history.
He stated that chopsticks were better for eating because they had blunt ends.
According to him, this spared their users images of the slaughterhouse which had preceded the arrival of the meat on the bowl and made for a better meal.
(If you’re interested in Chinese history, check out my review of the best Chinese history books here.)
Wherever you go in China, you can usually get a spoon to eat with if you really have trouble.
But this is one of the Chinese customs that you should really try to adapt to. Keep practicing with chopsticks – you’ll get there with some work!
Why do Chinese men have one long fingernail?
One thing you’ll probably gawk at while you’re in China is the sight of men with long fingernails, or just one long fingernail.
This is a custom that looks very strange to foreigners, but it actually has a clear purpose.
Having one long fingernail is a sign that you have money and you don’t work on a farm.
After all, you can’t really do manual labor with long fingernails, so men in particular use this as a sign of wealth and class.
You may even be ‘lucky’ enough to see a Chinese man clean out his ears with his sharp nails.
Why do Chinese people refill teacups?
When you’re drinking tea with people in China, they will always refill your cup before you finish.
This often means that you end up drinking so much tea that you’re ready to burst!
This is actually a way to honor other people and if you refill someone else’s cup, you’re showing them a great deal of respect.
So, the next time you’re at the table, look around and see who needs more tea.
Never refill your own first, instead start with the person with the highest status at the table and pour your own tea last.
This conveys strong, positive messages to everyone else at the table.
And if someone refills your cup, tap the table to show your thanks.
Why you should embrace China
When you’re in China, you’ll see and experience a range of behaviors that might seem bizarre to you. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.
Everyone has different ways of doing things based on their own experiences and history, and that applies as much to countries and cultures as it does to people.
Instead of judging, try to understand. Ask people why they do what they do and why they believe it works better.
With a bit of time and understanding, you may start to see the value in some of the practices you notice during your trip to China.
And, if a Chinese person offers you a glass of warm water or tea, graciously accept it.
Main image credit: Hunter Bliss Images on Shutterstock.
FAQ about Chinese people and hot water
Why do some Chinese drink hot water?
They believe it’s better for your health. In traditional Chinese medicine, hot water is a yin drink so it balances out too much yang energy you may have. There are also historical reasons, such as during ancient times when warming up was more important (and less expensive) than cooling down.
What is the purpose of drinking hot water?
Some people believe it’s better at regulating your body temperature, helps with your immune system and aids blood circulation.
Do they only drink hot water in China?
No, but it’s by far the drink of preference for most Chinese. You’ll even see Chinese carrying thermos bottles wherever they travel. Apart from the really hot days, you’ll find the drinks fridges in China are switched off. The locals prefer to drink their bottled water at room temperature.
Can you drink tap water in China?
No, it’s unsafe to drink. You should only drink boiled water, or you can buy bottled water there.
Can you get ice water in China?
Yes, but only at places that serve lots of drinks like bars, large and popular restaurants, foreign restaurants such as Pizza Hut, and places that typically serve Western people. Your regular Chinese restaurant probably won’t have ice or ice water.
Can you find cold water in Hong Kong?
Yes, because of Hong Kong’s history (having previously been ruled by the UK), you can find cold liquids in Hong Kong as well as your regular hot beverages such as hot water and tea.