Do you have a sore throat, itchy eyes or a breakout in your skin? You might be suffering from jit6 hei3 (熱氣), also known as “hot air” or “heatiness.” Most people who grew up in Chinese-speaking families will be familiar with this concept, along with its its opposite, hon4 loeng4 (寒涼), a kind of internal coolness. These schools of thought originate from traditional Chinese medicine, and over time have entered the common lexicon.
It is believed that jit6 hei3 is a condition that one can suffer from following an imbalance in the body’s “yin” and “yang” – that is, opposite forces that exist to complement each other. When this happens, the body essentially overheats, and one can fall victim to minor ailments. Conversely, it is thought that one can be born with an inherently hon4 loeng4 body. These unfortunate souls apparently tend to have freezing fingers and toes, and less colour in their complexions.
Generally speaking, far more people suffer from jit6 hei3 than from hon4 loeng4. Perhaps it is because so many foods people love to indulge in – or overindulge in – happen to be guilty pleasures that are thought of as jit6 hei3. Having too many burgers and fries or chocolate desserts, or overdoing hot pot dinners? Those are jit6 hei3, and not good for you. So are spicy dishes, and things like chilli and pepper. But just when diners think they might be safe with fruits, mangoes and lychees also fall under the jit6 hei3 category.
Hon4 loeng4 food items include some of the more obvious picks, like iced drinks and watermelons. Yet others ingredients believed to be cool are somewhat unexpected: eggs, beans, tofu, eggplant and pears fall under this category, too.
Luckily, for those who believe in these concepts, there are steps that can be taken to offset the effects of the foods that are bad for their bodies. Some people visit doctors who practice traditional Chinese medicine to find out if they are going through bouts of jit6 hei3, or suffer from a hon4 loeng4 body type. They are also advised to take Chinese soups and medicines to help condition their bodies.
Either way, many people grow up with their mothers, grandmothers and aunties cautioning them against overdoing it with certain foods. These conversations usually come with a heavy dose of pseudo-medical beliefs. Who’s to know what’s really true, and what isn’t? Maybe they just didn’t want us to eat too many Sichuan hot pots or sip on too much iced bubble tea.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.