Water Lot of Nonsense! Chinese Attitudes to H2O

Water Lot of Nonsense! Chinese Attitudes to H2O
May 17, 2011 By Jim Faherty , eChinacities.com

Historically water has been of paramount importance to the Chinese. Not just as a provision for survival (like any other nation), but in art, literature, politics, poetry, and feng shui (the reason behind the positioning of buildings and the arrangement of articles inside them, determined by spiritual and cosmic geomancy…. or something). China has two of the longest rivers in the world, the Yellow River (Huang Jiang) and Yangtze (known by Chinese as the Chang Jiang or Yangzi Jiang). Most expats who come to China will have heard of the Three Gorges Dam and the controversies that arose as a result of it.

Water Lot of Nonsense! Chinese Attitudes to H2O
Photo: china.cn

But on a day-to-day basis, water still affects the lives of those living in China. Based on the current rate of consumption, Beijing residents are consuming more water than the city can supply. As it grows at an exponential rate, the situation can only get worse. This phenomenon can be seen in many of China’s bigger inland cities too, like Xi’an, and towns and cities that line the arid Hexi corridor (stretching from Shaanxi through Gansu province up to Urumqi). And the government can’t simply make more water; it needs to be drained, diverted and filtered from surrounding existing sources, which isn’t easy, and risks displacing, or upsetting the water sources of other people. As the government continues to contend with these problems, the common garden-variety laowai in a Chinese city is probably pondering the same question: Is the tap water here safe to drink?

The simple answer is a resounding ‘No!’, but depending on what sources you read, you might be fooled into thinking it was. According to one website, the tap water in Beijing is actually safe to drink, although that weird smell that emanates from bathrooms in nearly all apartments is not the water, but the outdated piping system, many of which were laid in the 1950s and 60s. The official line is that the water is clean, but the pipes are not. Hmmmm. Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence, does it? Fortunately electric kettles are a dime-a-dozen in China, so however dirty or smelly your water is, you can always purify it by boiling.

It’s Raining It’s Pouring, The Old Man Is…. Putting Shopping on His Head?

It is said that “When it rains, it pours”. This is especially true of China (in the literal sense). It’s very rare to get the odd shower that blows over within 30 minutes (a typical characteristic of UK rain patterns). Rather, it will rain straight for one whole day. Or four nights. Or sometimes a few weeks, without stopping. Whether it be in the parched north, where precipitation is welcomed for the nurture of crops, or the fat drops that accompany warm thunderstorms in the tropical south, you can bet on seeing one thing when it rains in China: Chinese people going crazy.

Now there are scenes in China that, should a Westerner catch view of, would shock or delight, or perhaps both in equal measure. Watching Chinese people during a rainstorm is one of these. I remember the first time I saw it: I was walking out of a supermarket in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, and suddenly the heavens opened with a rumble of thunder, and within seconds, big heavy raindrops were falling everywhere. It had been stormy for some weeks, so it wasn’t a surprise to see another rainstorm. But obviously this one had caught people off guard, because there were men and women of all ages running around like mad, trying to take shelter under shop fronts, or piling into taxis as they abandoned their plans for the day, or zipping to the nearest store to buy (yet another) cheap umbrella.

When I visited a Chinese friend’s flat some years ago, I noticed a neat stockpile of nearly 15 cheap umbrellas by the door. I asked him why he had so many, and he duly told me that he bought one almost every time it rained because he always forgot to carry one with him. On one street corner there was an old man, probably in his late 60s, returning home with the weekly grocery shop perched on his head! I wondered if it was worth the effort to carry kilos of vegetables in plastic bags on his head just to try and stay dry (and the only part of him that was dry was the top of his head—the rest of him was soaked through!)

Water Lot of Nonsense! Chinese Attitudes to H2O

Since then (2005), I’ve seen a similar phenomenon almost every time it rains. For someone who comes from the UK, where a light shower of rain is treated like a strong gust of wind—“Oh, it’ll blow over soon”—it’s quite astounding to see the lengths Chinese people go to not to get hit by a single drop. Now, I know acid rain is a problem in big industrialised cities in China, but it’s not so strong that it burns off faces in wisps of acrid smoke (unless the Government is hiding something!) I asked a Chinese friend her opinion, and she told me, “下雨天气就容易感冒了” (It’s easy to catch a cold in the rain). I countered, “So every time it rains, you’ll catch a cold for sure?” “Not every time, but it’s easier,” she replied. “Hmm…” I wondered to myself. “I wonder why I never caught a cold in the rain in England?” Then I looked over at the entrance to the subway station. There were about 150 people crammed in under the roof, all looking outside, waiting for the rain to stop. Many were smoking, some spitting, coughing, others talking on phones, and there was a steady flow of thoroughly disgruntled commuters pushing past them attempting to get out. The reason why they fall ill when it rains became clear! Everyone was up in everyone else’s face, snorting, breathing and huffing each other’s germs.

Water Lot of Nonsense! Chinese Attitudes to H2O

So this was just one symptom of the national obsession with ganmao (感冒), or catching a cold. Another way of staving off the dreaded ganmao, and the subsequent 3 days of IV drip to cure it, is by drinking boiled water. At every interval you can. And not just water that’s been boiled and left to cool. No, you must drink boiling hot water that scalds your lips and blisters your tongue with its freshly-boiled goodness. In rare cases, one is permitted to add a sprinkling of tea leaves to this concoction, but usually baikaishui (白开水) or boiled water, is good enough on its own.

Whichever way you look at it, water in every guise is of tremendous importance and significance to the Chinese. Whether it be scalding hot in a tiny cup, gushing out of rusty pipes in the city, meandering through the Tibetan foothills, or just falling to the earth naturally (or unnaturally, as seen during the Beijing Olympics when clouds were impregnated with silver particles and ‘forced’ to rain!), there are myriad ways to enjoy it in China. Just make sure you don’t go to a public swimming pool. EVER.

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Keywords: Raining in China Chinese tap water China water safety attitudes to water China


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Jonathan Smythe

To David (comment 9)

USA gold medals achieved at last olympics: 36
China gold medals achieved at last olympics: 51

May 19, 2011 06:33 Report Abuse



Haha you are without a doubt British (even without the mention of the UK). God I miss that! I feel I have lost some of my Britishness and must regain it. I'll look out for more of your articles (Oh and before Neutraliser gets there 'why don't you go home if you miss England so much!' there I said it for you).

May 17, 2011 12:41 Report Abuse