The Simple Drink That Is Unexpectedly A Staple In China

When you think about common drinks in China, you might picture a Chinese tea party with fine porcelain cups filled with lapsang souchong or pu'er teas. Those are indeed popular choices, but there's another surprising drink on the list: plain hot water (sometimes flavored with goji, ginseng, or chrysanthemum). For many in the West, sipping hot water might sound odd, but, in China, it's a long-standing practice deeply rooted in the country's ancient traditions and folk medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been highlighting the importance of hot water for centuries. According to the "Huangdi Neijing," a 2,000-year-old ancient Chinese medical text, warm water can nurture a person's innate yang energy, which is vital for maintaining balance — and therefore health — in the body. TCM emphasizes the harmony between yin and yang, and hot water is considered a key player in ensuring this equilibrium (in contrast to cold water, which is believed to cause illnesses if consumed too frequently). In TCM, hot water is credited with aiding various bodily functions, including digestion and nutrient absorption, and is believed to play a role in the optimal functioning of organs.

In the 1930s, China's New Life movement, initiated by the Nationalist government, promoted hot water consumption as it was seen as a cleaner choice due to its heat's ability to kill off harmful germs in drinking water. Even after the Communist Revolution in 1949, this practice persisted and was actively encouraged by the new government, shaping the beliefs and habits of generations that continue to this day.

The growing popularity of hot water outside of China

As more Chinese people move abroad, they carry this hot water-loving aspect of their culture with them. According to writer Bernice Chan (via the South China Morning Post), the waitstaff in her Vancouver home has started calling her family's preferred warm water and lemon concoction a "Chinese Martini." This simple drink remains a favorite choice among Chinese patrons at many establishments.

In fact, the hot water trend has grown so popular that even airlines have embraced it. As The Los Angeles Times noted, flight attendants who may not speak Chinese often understand the preference for the drink and will gladly provide you with a cup of warm water when you request "re shui" — Chinese for "hot water." You can also find hot water available in numerous international travel hubs. For instance, Helsinki Airport in Finland has installed several hot water dispensers to cater to Chinese travelers and make it more convenient for them to get their warm, hydrating fill. 

And this trend isn't confined to Finland alone. As of 2023, you can find these dispensers at various airports across Europe, including in Amsterdam, Rome, Narita, and Paris. People's Daily has even given this widespread availability of hot drinking water at airports and on airlines a catchy name: "the hot water revolution."