The Concept of Humidity in Chinese Folk Medicine

Genre: Customary lore

Category: Folk Medicine

Collection date: Apr.20th, 2022

Main piece:  

“The dampness(湿气) within one’s body is a concept in Chinese folk medicine. It is an unhealthy body condition. It causes minor symptoms including cold and acne, and it can also be the cause of more serious sicknesses such as rheumatism. Aside from physical illnesses, mental problems can be the result of dampness in one’s body as well, including anxiety and depression. In the traditional understanding, diet is the main way to solve this problem. Eating specific food can reduce the dampness within one’s body. Some examples include barley, herbal tea, lily, lotus seeds, tremella, and houttuynia cordata.”

Contextual data:

Social context:

My informant brought this concept up when we are chatting regularly. She learned this concept from her mother and grandmother. According to her memory, this concept is usually brought up by the elder female members of her family. The male members of the family don’t talk about it much. It is a concept deeply entrenched in everyday lives. Usually in the family, when someone is in bad condition, the elder female family members will give an analysis of their health conditions, and dampness is often mentioned in their explanation. They would also give solutions by informing them to eat certain food. According to the informant, although this concept is pretty well-known across the entire country, it is especially prominent in southeast China (Cantonese-speaking area). It may have some correlation with the climate. The southeast part of China is known for high humidity. Therefore, human bodies naturally react to it. 

Cultural context:

The informant is a Hakka Chinese. She grew up in Shenzhen, China, and came to the U.S. for post-secondary education.

Informant’s comment:

“The concept of dampness in Chinese tradition doesn’t have a clear definition like scientific medicine. It is purely decided by the older members of a family and passed on from generation to generation. It’s hard to explain to someone outside the community. It’s not scientific but can be used to explain a lot of issues of body conditions.”

My comment:

My mother’s family, which is from the southern part of China, has very similar traditions. The concept of dampness is a pretty widespread idea in China. It is a very important idea in traditional Chinese medicine. However, I do agree that it is even more prominent in the southeast part of China. In modern media, there are even memes about how Cantonese people use dampness to explain everything.