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The Universal, Yet Uniquely Chinese, Experience of Being On Fire

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Ever wake up and find yourself on fire?

Strange as it may sound, we’ve all experienced “rising fire” (上火, pinyin: shang huo) at one point or another. The term encompasses everything from a sore throat the morning after a spicy dinner, to the insidious tingle of a pimple sprouting on the corner of your mouth.

Since traditional medicine is very much alive and well in contemporary China, it’s quite common for people to attribute their ailments to “rising fire.” Beijing resident Maomao says she associates this condition with a dry mouth and tongue, tooth pain, sore throat, acne, and yellow urine.

She isn’t alone, either; a 2014 epidemiological survey of over 23,000 Chinese citizens reported dry mouth, dry eyes, sore throat, mouth ulcers, swollen gums, and pimples as some of the most common symptoms of shang huo.

What these seemingly disparate symptoms have in common is the experience of “heat”. It’s the internal “fire” of shang huo that sears the throat, inflames the gums, and bubbles up through the skin as pimples and canker sores.

So how is the body set aflame? Many Chinese people attribute it to an imbalance of yin and yang, complementary forces at work in the body. These concepts, derived from classical Chinese philosophy, are a characteristically Chinese-medical mode of thinking.

The body can be divided into yin and yang many times over; its surface is yang and its hidden interior is yin, while things that are warmer are yang and things that are cooler are yin. “When your body contains too much yang,” explains graduate student Mingda, “it can lead to symptoms like inflammation, and we just generally call it shang huo.” From a TCM perspective, interactions between the body’s yin and yang can help explain bodily function and dysfunction.

Related:

Yin and Yang for Dummies: Dipping a Toe into the Theory of TCM

It’s worth noting that an imbalance of yin and yang isn’t purely physiological; emotions can also factor into shang huo. “When a person is under a lot of pressure, is overworked, or doesn’t drink enough water, they can easily become anxious, irritable, and angry, just as dry material easily catches fire,” says Beijing University of Chinese Medicine professor and practicing physician Li Chengwei.

Student Lawrence agrees, saying that while eating too much spicy food or staying up late too often is a common culprit, “hating — or loving — a person too much can cause shang huo” as well.

Maomao says that when she feels irritable and anxious she can easily experience shang huo, but after she resolves the issues causing her stress, her physiological symptoms usually disappear. Dr. Li, Lawrence and Maomao all situate shang huo at a nexus between mind and body to which Chinese medicine is particularly attuned.

If a loss of balance between activity and rest, yin and yang, or spicy and mild, causes shang huo, then its resolution lies in regaining balance. If you seek Chinese-medical treatment, you might receive a diagnosis for a particular organ system, such as having excess liver yang. But the basic principle of restoring balance still holds — perhaps by drinking herbal tonics meant to clear heat, or by adjusting your sleep schedule.

It’s not such a bad thing to have some fire inside you. Yang is, after all, an invaluable part of your body’s vital function. What’s important is knowing how to keep it in check.

Colin Garon
    Colin Garon is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied the history and anthropology of science. This year, he's researching the theoretical dimensions of integrative medicine at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.

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