Winter is coming to Hong Kong, which means cold and flu season has been heading our way with determination. While the name “cold” in English may suggest the weather has something to do with how we catch the common cold, the name for the common cold in Cantonese, soeng1 fung1 (傷風) is more explicit about the role of nature. Literally meaning “injury wind,” the concept of the common cold in Chinese culture is inseparable from its medical obsession with wind.
Have you been exposed to too much wind around the back of your neck or have you accumulated excessive amounts of bodily wind, especially in the large intestines? These are questions you may be asked if you see a Chinese doctor. Before you go thinking about inappropriate bodily wind, keep in mind that traditional Chinese medicine practitioners double as weathermen who are serious about the direction the wind blows.
Earnest study of wind has shown that a southwest breeze affects the spleen internally and the muscles externally, while a northeast squall affects the large intestines and ribs, armpits and joints. The important message being, when the wind blows, cover up or hide.
According to the Lingshu Jing, an ancient Chinese medical text from the first century BC, “the sages avoided the winds like avoiding arrows and stones.” The power of the wind to strike you down — zung3 fung1 (中風), literally “strike wind” — is a term still used in Chinese nowadays, meaning to suffer a stroke.
There are six types of external evils in traditional Chinese medicine: wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness and summer heat. The common cold usually involves wind cold (fung1 hon4 風寒) and wind heat (fung1 jit6 風熱). Which one you get depends on your dietary habits, lifestyle, stress levels and sleep patterns. Basically, have you been good or have you been bad?
The evil wind attacks the body’s weaknesses due to excessive fatigue or an “improper” lifestyle. The counteracting force to external wind in our body is qi (or in Cantonese – hei3 氣). When that internal energy is crippled, wind cold can easily exploit a heat deficiency (yang) and Wind-heat can exploit a cold deficiency (yin).
Whichever one you have, the important thing is to take the right herbal remedy, because taking the wrong one potentially means “trapping the burglar.” A favourite analogy of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, it is a situation where an unwanted burglar is in the house, but we lock up all the exits and trap them instead of getting rid of them. When you sense an “injury wind” coming on, the worst thing to do is to drink a stimulating tonic like ginseng that will effectively close up the exterior of the body, instead of letting out all the pathogens. What you need are herbal formulas that opens up the exterior and repels wind.
The idea of releasing everything to heal the inside is not only limited to bodily “wind” when suffering from a cold, but also to fluids like sweat and phlegm. If you ever wondered why spitting seems so traditionally ingrained in Chinese culture, this is the source. The only way to heal fully is to release it all and rid the body of it – cold, hot, evil wind and all.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.