In the Chinese tradition, November 9th marks the beginning of winter (立冬 lì dong). Ask any traditional Chinese doctor and/or herbalist, or any devout believer of Chinese medicine, and you’ll hear the following exhortation at this time of the year: “November 9th is the beginning of winter. For the next two days, you should avoid eating anything raw and/or cold, as this is the time when the qi of winter (寒氣 hán qì) is resurgent. Make sure you immerse your extremities – your hands and feet – in hot water every night before you go to bed, to ward off the encroachment of winter qi from your body.” This year, in the playful spirit of rediscovering my ancestral roots, I decided to give this ancient two-day regimen a try.
So what does it mean, when the Chinese herbalist warns one not to eat anything raw and/or cold on the ninth and tenth of November? Perhaps a quick gander at the corresponding Chinese words and their usage in the Chinese language (with regards to food!) will shed some light on this advice:
Corresponding Chinese character: 生 (sheng)
Common usage: 生菜 (sheng caì: raw lettuce), 生菜沙拉／生菜色拉 (sheng caī sha la / sheng caì sè la: salad), 生魚片 (sheng yú piàn: sashimi), 生菜水果 (sheng caì shuǐ guǒ: raw vegetables and fruit)
Corresponding Chinese character: 涼 (líang, Traditional Chinese) ／ 凉 (líang, Simplified Chinese)
Common usage: 涼麵／凉面 (líang miàn), 涼菜／凉菜 [liang caì: cold dish(es)], 涼拌／凉拌 (líang bàn: tossed, mixed; used to describe cold dishes that involve mixing/tossing the ingredients), 菜涼了／菜凉了 (caì líang lë: [vernacular] This dish has gone cold / The dishes have gone cold)
*Note 1: the other Chinese character for cold, 冷 (lěng), indicates temperatures that are lower than those signified by the character 涼／凉. Logically, this meant that I had to avoid consuming cold beverages and frozen food as well, such as ice cream and popsicles.
*Note 2: When describing temperatures in Chinese, líang signifies cool, whereas lěng describes cold.
In other words, I was not supposed to consume any of the following for two days: raw fruits and vegetables, cold dishes, dishes that have gone cold, cold/iced drinks, etc. My plan, then, was to combine this regimen with another regimen that I had learned over the years when dealing with the common cold: drink some coffee, followed by copious amounts of hot water. After all, two of my three flatmates were stricken with the common cold that was spreading like a wildfire through the crowded city of Shanghai. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if I fell ill too.
On November 9th, in accordance to the traditional saying, temperatures in Shanghai fell precipitously, from a balmy twenty degrees Celsius on the eighth to around ten degrees Celsius on the ninth. The chilly north wind made it another few degrees cooler. As I feared, I fell sick in the afternoon after meeting a friend that I haven’t seen in nearly half a year for lunch; unfortunately, he forgot to tell me that he had just come down with the cold, and was feeling quite ill. To exacerbate matters, I had drunk a glass of cool soybean milk for lunch as well, which, in the eyes of the Chinese herbalist, would be the determining factor in my falling ill on this momentous day.
Now that prevention was out of the question, I had to proceed to the next step: expulsion. Following the dictates given to me by my fellow Chinese medicine practitioners, I had a hearty mug of coffee, followed by many glasses of hot water, while avoiding raw/cold foods all day. Coughing and sneezing my way to bed (while making frequent trips to the loo), I prepared myself for next day’s reckoning; without intending to in the first place (for I wasn’t planning to fall ill at all!), I was really giving this ancient regimen as test run, and hoping that it really worked, for it usually took me around a week to fully recover from a common cold.
After a night of sweating it out, I woke up the next the day feeling refreshed and energetic; apparently, the regimen had accomplished what it set out to do: expel the winter qi from my body. Needless to say, I was absolutely elated: never had I recovered from a cold in less than twenty four hours before! For the rest of the day, I adhered to the regimen, avoiding all raw and/or cold foods, and making sure that my extremities were well-protected at all times. By November 11th, I was certain that my illness had passed.
While it would be tempting to attribute this speedy recovery to the ancient regimen, I do not think that is the lesson that I should be drawing from this experience. The real lesson lies in the realisation that an ancient saying is the accumulated experience and wisdom of a culture over a long period of time, distilled into a simple (and sometimes mystical) saying.
The historian in me would assert that the injunction to avoid raw/cold foods makes good sense given the saying’s historical context – it emerged during an era in which humankind have yet to invent refrigeration, hence the advice to avoid food that may have already spoiled. However, the literary romantic in me would ask – why does this saying still hold so much traction among a segment of the Chinese population today? (It works!)
Given that I’ve just set a record for recovering from a cold, I’m loathe to play the role of the skeptic today. I’m still over the moon over my record-breaking recovery time.
Coincidentally, November 11th, the end of the injunction period, happens to be “Singles Day” in some parts of the world. It is also the day of frenzied online shopping in China, the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday in Canada and the United States. Perhaps people are celebrating the fact that they can eat cold and raw foods again, without the increased risk of falling ill. I wonder what the ancients would make of this merry alignment of the dates.
Until next week,