Leng Buleng Season
Mist-shrouded mountains and monks with the erhu playing in the background - a portrait of the mysterious East. It didn’t take long for that image of China to be proven a bad mental Photoshop job, yet there are still daily mysteries to unravel in the Middle Kingdom. For example, why do people feel the need to incessantly ask me if I’m cold or not? Friends, colleagues and even random old ladies who pinch my trousers to see just how much I’m wearing - it gets a bit much after a while.
Yes, it gets cold as fuck in Daqing, but these prodding inquiries about my daily fashion decisions are not exclusive to the bleak drudgery of winter. Nope, I get these questions as early as September and onward through autumn. This overlapping period of three seasons has been mentally denoted as China’s fifth season - leng buleng season. This is the question that plagues me, literally “Cold, not cold?” Why is someone asking me if I’m cold on a beautiful, 22°C day? What follows is me trying to reason through this question, a dangerous business considering such pursuits usually lead you down a rabbit hole with nothing but empty erguotou bottles at the end.
1) Collective Groupthink
Whether it’s the family circle, work unit or entire nationality, a much heavier emphasis is placed on collectives rather than the individual in China. There are several reasons for this, many of them predating Communist rule. The important thing to recognize here is that the in-group/out-group divide is hugely important as a method of self-preservation in Chinese culture. China is a spiderweb of different in-group networks that look out for the interests of members within the group by way of exchanging information and favors. Hostility to those perceived as out-group is common. If one zooms out far enough, China is the in-group and the rest of the world is the out-group.
So, in a society in which authority is rarely questioned, it’s not surprising that outside ideas, even regarding something as mundane as the temperature and how you should dress for it, are taken with a grain of rice. The collective knows that of course you need to start layering up near the end of September, no matter what the day-to-day temperature reads. It’s a feedback loop of conformity, to the point where I think many respect an idea of temperature that has been passed through the collective rather than what their individual body is telling them on a physical level. Weird, I know, but still not the weirdest thing I’ve seen people doing here just because other people were doing it.
2) Childhood Conditioning
This is a piece of the machinery mentioned above and is driven by the many philosophies throughout Chinese history that promote unquestioning obedience to authority - Legalism, Confucianism, Taoism, Maoism… If your parents tell you to do something, you fucking listen. Children are not even considered to have their own agency until after they finish high school. So, from a very young age, you’re told it’s cold when it’s 20°C+ out, and you need to wear more clothes. As a baby, you’re wrapped up in an insane amount of clothes, even in Southern China where summers are miserable. If you have a fever, the solution is a lasagna of more clothes and blankets, to the point where overheating is a serious issue. You’ve been taught this aversion to cold since you were a baby, and it was pushed on you to at least age 18. Carrying this into you adult life psychologically is now very probable and your physical tolerance to cold is probably quite low as a result.
3) Chinese Medicine
This is huge, possibly bigger than any other possibility on this list. Collectives cycle information and parents are conduits for the perpetuation of this by passing on the information at an early age. But what is this information? It all comes down to qi. In traditional Chinese medicine, qi is viewed as an individual’s life force. Pretty much everything you do influences your qi, either giving you a deficit or a surplus. The goal, of course, is balance. According to TCM practitioners, one major culprit of a qi deficiency is cold. This can be from cold drinks, cold foods and cold environments. So, of course there is a natural aversion to cold if you believe that Chinese medicine is legitimate, which most people do here. I would be wearing piles of clothes and drinking nothing but hot water if I thought my very surroundings were sapping my life force from me.
4) The Qin-Huai Line
Trying to find out why Chinese people ask me if I’m cold all the time has led to the discovery of things I never knew about China after living here 3 years, and this is one of them. Every country has it’s own regional divisions, whether they be geographic or demographic in nature. China has an odd one - who gets government-provided central heating in the winter and who doesn’t. This is called the Qin-Huai Line, tracing the Huai River from its mouth in the east to the Qin Mountains in the west. Anyone above it gets to be warm, everyone below is shit out of luck, even if some of those cities get down to temperatures as low as -20°F (-7°C) in the winter. I can imagine having to live through that every year probably makes one obsessed about the cold and staying warm. It still doesn’t explain why people constantly talk about it up here, hundreds of miles well above the Qin-Huai Line where my radiators reliably gurgle to life every October.
5) Energy from Different Food Sources
A further argument that I’ve heard from both Chinese and foreigners alike is that Chinese are more susceptible to the cold due to differing energy sources in our traditional diets. The way they tell it is that the Chinese have a diet high in carbs, which are a quick yet disposable form of energy. Western diets are higher in fat and protein, which release energy more slowly, but over a longer period of time. This slower metabolic rate should result in being warmer longer. I don’t really buy this, though. Northern Chinese cuisine is loaded with fat and protein. It’s commonly referred to as “foreigner-friendly” Chinese cuisine because of its hearty meat n’ potatoes nature. It just doesn’t add up and it’s probably another part of the “foreigner bodies are different” rubbish you hear anytime you encounter some strange health belief here.
It’s all in your head
I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I say that I think the reason for this treatment of temperature is far more cultural than China's strange division over central heating or the average person's diet over here. Cultural conditioning is a powerful thing, even when it comes to something as quantifiable and uncontroversial as the weather. Overall, the constant questions about winter wear choices don't bother me too much, as it's some of the more benign treatment you get as a foreigner here. If it's not "Are you cold?" it will be "Can you use chopsticks?" or something else. It does make me curious and I felt like I had to tackle this after over three years in China and three winters in dongbei. Also, pretty much none of this is applicable at the time of writing because it is actually cold as balls outside right now!