Which Will Kill You First: Hot or Cold?

Winter’s almost over, by which of course I mean the State, in its infinite wisdom, will soon be shutting off the heat. March 10, to be exact. It’s never officially cold or warm in China until the State says so, and this is convenient, really, because who has time to check the weather online or stick a hand out the window to see if it’s time for Bermuda shorts or an anorak? Far better to know that on a certain day, perhaps even at a certain time. . .it will officially be cold. Until then, you can use your wall-mounted heating/cooling unit to warm the place up a bit, but doing so necessitates a steady draft of dry, heated air into an already dry space, such that after a few days your skin takes on the properties of an old boot. (And for the record, I don’t generally notice I have dry skin at all until it starts to crack.) Alternately, you can wait until the State switches on the hot water for the pipes that run through your building’s superstructure, a wonderful system when used correctly because it keeps even the floors warm. There’s nothing like getting up in the night to go to the bathroom and feeling warm tile under your feet. Of course if cold weather (i.e. weather deemed cold by bourgeois capitalist-roaders) strikes before then, you’re likely to wake up feeling like you’re one small step from a cryogenic freeze state, but given that the alternative is skin like an iguana’s, and perhaps a bloody nose to boot, it’s sort of the devil or the deep blue sea.

All that rambling aside, one of the wonderfully comical things about a State-mandated heating system is that the weather in Hebei province, and in Beijing and Tianjin, has an uncanny sense of bad timing. If the heat gets shut off March 10, you can be fairly certain a cold spell will be right on its heels. Or if the mud guards in your bike fall off, it will almost certainly rain the next day. And so on. This is doubly ironic given the odd mania the Chinese have with hot and cold, a facet of Chinese culture I’ll probably never understand. Traditional medicine is based partly on a balance of hot and cold, and these terms apply in countless different ways. The tradition of using fire-cups (small glass bulbs into which a flame is inserted briefly, then suctioned onto the skin for a few minutes and removed, leaving a red welt; get a whole treatment done and it will look as though you lost a wrestling match to an octopus), for example, is based on the idea of drawing the heat from the blood to the surface of the skin, thereby ridding the body of a dangerous excess. This applies doubly to drinking water. Just try drinking a glass of ice water around a Chinese friend on a cold day. Or on any day, really. For even more fun, walk outside in cold weather with wet hair. You might as well juggle broken bottles or eat raw chicken in their eyes. It has something to do with the shock incurred by a collision of hot and cold, though again, how exactly that works is a closed book to me. I keep meaning to do a thorough study of the roots of traditional medicine and philosophy, but things keep coming up.

Fair enough. That’s just their culture. But can someone explain the Nankai swimming pool temperature to me? I went swimming last week for the first time since before Christmas, and I swear the water can’t have been heated much above the conditions needed to freeze helium. Usually when I jump in I have to swim a good fifty meters before I’m properly warm, but last week I swam a full kilometer and was still chilly. I took a warm shower, walked around, and when I got back to my dorm I still had to cover up with a blanket for a while. The funny thing was the presence of at least 10 other people in the pool happily swimming laps. This baffles me. Why is cold air second only to the Black Death on a list of history’s greatest killers, but swimming pool water apparently flown in from McMurdo Sound is no problem?

And while we’re on the subject of temperatures, if someone can explain to me why every department store in Tianjin is hotter than the surface of Mercury, I’ll be happy to give you a prize of some sort.

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1 Responses to Which Will Kill You First: Hot or Cold?

  1. Taylor says:

    My explanation may not be perfectly clear, but this may help you understand somewhat. The eight principles of Chinese diagnosis are hot/cold, external/internal, excess/deficiency, yang/yin. Typically, your acute illnesses and conditions are both external and excess. Most of them are called wind invasion of respective body part (lung, bladder, etc.). They can be wind heat, wind cold, or just wind. There’s more I can explain, but it might be easier to chat about it.

    Oh, and fire cups in my learning are more for treating stagnation which is an excess condition and can be blood or Qi.

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