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Tea Leaves

Some like it hot: why China cold-shoulders ice water

Japanese-style thirst quencher has little appeal for Chinese drinkers

Kettles for boiling water in the eastern Chinese city of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province   © LightRocket/Getty Images

As someone who has lived in both Japan and China, I am often asked about the differences between the two peoples. There are many. The Chinese are direct and talkative, while the Japanese have perfected the art of subtlety and silence. But what stands out to me is a relatively simple difference: While Japanese tend to prefer their water with ice, in China the drinking water is invariably hot.

On a recent visit to Beijing from Tokyo, I would fetch up at restaurants sweaty from sightseeing and desperate for an ice-cold thirst quencher. But requests for water descended into a minefield of temperature terminology, the inevitable outcome of which was a glass of hot water.

There was kai shui, or boiling water; re shui, or hot water; and wen shui, or water at room temperature -- which in actuality is cooler than re shui but warmer than what would normally pass as lukewarm.

Most Chinese rarely drink bai shui, or plain water, preferring to sip cha shui, or tea water, through the day. As strange and frustrating as it might seem to Japan-habituated ice-water drinkers, cha shui has saved more lives than the most cutting-edge vaccines.

Access to clean drinking water remains one of the most pressing, if unglamorous, health challenges facing the world today. Diarrhea caused by contaminated drinking water kills more children across the world than HIV.

According to UNICEF data, more than 1,300 children under the age of 5 die from diarrhea every day. Of these deaths, India accounts for the largest number -- 105,000 a year, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. By contrast, in China, the only other country with a comparable population, diarrhea deaths among children under 5 number less than 10,000 annually.

Better access to sanitation in China and climatic differences between the countries play an important role in explaining this divergence. But China's hot water habit is germane, too. The practice has long antecedents, stretching back to the traditional medicine concept that the stomach's energy is upset by food and drink that is overly cooling.

In his book "Fusang: The Chinese who built America," Stan Steiner writes that the roughly 13,000 Chinese emigrants who helped build the great American railroad network in the 19th century were constantly belittled by their white fellow laborers. The Chinese were mockingly referred to as "effeminate," and their habit of brewing barrels of tea that was served all day long in tiny cups such as "ladies see fit to use" drew derisive laughter. However, it was this very habit of using boiling water for tea that saved the Chinese workers from the dysentery, cholera and death that plagued their colleagues from other nations.

Decades later, the Chinese Communist Party became the chief proselytizer for the consumption of hot water. During the civil war of the 1930s and 1940s, Communist soldiers who were not provided with freshly boiled water could take the matter up with their superiors, while those found drinking unboiled water were berated. When the Communists came to power in 1949, the government established free hot water services in schools, factories and government departments across the country, a practice that persisted throughout all the tumultuous changes of the ensuing decades.

As I wandered about Beijing, I marveled at the many transformations in the skyline that had occurred in the mere eight years since I had lived there. A mobile payments revolution had made cash almost defunct. The internet was more heavily restricted. Many of the sites that used to be accessible were blocked  (I joined Facebook while resident in China). The cost of living had grown exponentially.

It was only the ubiquitous availability of hot water that provided some semblance of continuity. I found myself glancing at the kettle in my hotel room with nostalgic approval. But Chinese girls apparently do not always share this sentiment.

There is a joke doing the rounds on Chinese social media that riffs on the idea that boyfriends always advise their girlfriends to "he re shui," or "drink hot water," as panacea for every ailment:

Girlfriend: Honey, I have a cold.

Boyfriend: Drink some hot water.

Girlfriend: I have menstrual cramps.

Boyfriend: Drink some hot water.

Girlfriend: I have a stomachache.

Boyfriend: Drink some hot water.

Girlfriend: I want to break up.

Boyfriend: Wow! That hurts.

Girlfriend: Just drink some hot water!

Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author and member of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on the Future of Information and Entertainment.

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