Opens the waterhouse; open water rooms

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Yunong Zhou sent me the following signs from China:

Before providing transcription and translation of these two signs, a little bit of cultural background is necessary. My experience, from living and travelling in China for more than forty years and from having married into a Chinese family, is that Chinese people have traditionally not liked to drink cold water (or cold milk, for that matter), but strongly prefer hot water (and hot milk). They give lots of reasons for their preference, such as that it is safer, tastes better, is less likely to upset the stomach, and so forth. Consequently, it has been customary — and comforting — to have some means to provide hot, boiled water in buildings such as offices, hotels, hospitals, and dormitories.

In the old days, every hotel room was provided with large thermos bottles full of piping hot water. But where did the hot water come from? A room with a large boiler where people would go to fill up their thermos bottles (or where the staff would do it for them). That's what these two signs are about. Nowadays many modern buildings no longer have a special room with a large boiler for making hot water. Instead they come with electric kettles in each room, though more and more modernized people are willing to drink bottled water, which is not hot.

The first sign says kāishuǐ fáng 开水房 ("room for boiling water"), but the English translation parses it thus: kāi shuǐfáng.

The second sign reads kāishuǐ jiān 开水间 ("room for boiling water"), but the translation parses it thus: kāi shuǐ jiān.

To complete this brief introduction to the culture of boiled water, I'll add a few more related words:

cháshuǐ 茶水 — still available free in many airports and train stations, this is extremely diluted tea; basically boiled water with but the slightest amount of tea flavor and color. Superficially, the name seems to mean the same thing as German Teewasser, but the latter — I think — signifies "boiled water for infusing tea", though I may be wrong about that. In Japanese, we have the expression o chanomizu お茶の水 ("honorable tea water"); there's a neighborhood in Tokyo that goes by that name, and there's even an Ochanomizu University, one of two national women's universities in Japan.

lěng kāishuǐ 冷开水 — boiled water that has been allowed to cool down, the idea being that, if you're going to drink water that is not scalding hot, you should at least boil it first anyway

shuǐ kāile 水开了 — lit. "water has opened", i.e., "the water has boiled / is boiling"


  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 2:17 am

    I cannot help being intriguded by the comment about hot milk. I've been under the impression most East Asian including most Chinese (but I have had little data regarding the various ethnic groups of China) were lactose-intolerant?

  2. Hans Adler said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 3:11 am

    As a native speaker of German, I can confirm that Teewasser is water used for making tea. Depending on context, the focus will either be on its temperature (in which case it must be hot) or on other relevant factors such as hardness. I think this word is interesting in that it seems to be more than an ad hoc creation and less than a standard word of the German language. I guess it is made up on the spot independently by many different people, and in some cases becomes part of the family vocabulary.

  3. Frans said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 5:56 am

    I don't know about German, but in Dutch tea water is a regular word; there's nothing special about it. The word is even on the official-spelling word list. However, according to that dictionary, the meaning has shifted from simply a synonym for tea the drink to water for making tea at some point prior to the 1930s.

  4. Hans Adler said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 9:15 am

    @Frans: Indeed, Teewasser is in the Duden (at least in the online version). I should have checked that first.

  5. julie lee said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    Thanks Victor for the nice signs and blog. A few thoughts:

    —For people who don't read Chinese: "room for boiing water" in English could mean "a room where you can boil water". I'd translate the signs as saying "boiled-water room", The two characters 開 KAI "open" and 水SHUI "water", together KAISHUI , "open-water", mean "boiled water";

    —I'm Chinese but have lived in the U.S. for many years. I still boil my tap water before drinking it ( in fact I first filter it with Brito filter);

    —when a member of my family was on his death-bed in one of the best university hospitals in the U.S., he was given ICE-COLD water to drink. I hit the ceiling with the nurses. I said: "He has to drink warm water!!!" His doctor was American (white man), but I appealed to my friend, a Chinese Western-trained physician who was with me at the bedside. He smirked, shook his head and said: "They'll just laugh at you." Later I told my daughter, a physician. She said: "Yes, mom, don't be ridiculous." According to Chinese medicine, one of the worst things to do to yourself, whether you're sick or healthy, is to drink ice-cold water (or milk, etc.). I'm retired, and my Chinese relatives in China were shocked to see me drink cold water instead of warm water. I just received a Chinese medical circular (for older people) . It said "Never drink ice-cold water after a meal. It may cause a stroke." I don't know if that's true. Any physicians or biophysicists here?

  6. Gpa said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    If you speak Mandarin, 開水 might mean "hot" or "boiled" water. But if you don't speak Mandarin, but other Chinese dialects, then 開水 either has a meaning along that of Mandarin, or it would have no meaning at all. In Cantonese, 熱水 means literally, "hot water" and is used for "hot water", where 滾水 meaning "boiled/boiling water", is used for "boiling pots of water", but if literally translated would be "rolling water" and 凍水, literally meaning "cold water" in Cantonese is used for cold water, but somehow in Mandarin, 凍 is used to mean "freeze/frozen" and not just cold, and that's due to Mandarin speakers using 冷 meaning "ice cold", with the ice radical indicative of its meaning, is quite literally just the shortened Chinese form of 冰冷, where an example is 冰冷酒, meaning literally an "ice cold [cup of] wine". How and who made up this 開水 nonsensical term is beyond understanding, where 開水, quite literally is "open water", which makes no sense: of course you need to open the faucet or tap to get water, otherwise, how'd you get it? But that water would be "cold" in the first place would it not, so than it's illogical. How in the world did "開水" become "boiled water /boiling water" in Mandarin? Is there a way of saying "warm water", "lukewarm water" or "hot water" in Mandarin? They won't all be 開水, now would they?

  7. julie wei said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

    "lukewarm water" is WEN SHUI in Mandarin,
    "hot water" is RE SHUI in Mandarin.

    GUN SHUI ("rolling water") is "water brought to a rolling boil"

    KAISHUI ("open-water") is "boiling-water", "boiled water", or
    "hot boiled-water"

    LIANG KAISHUI is cool boiled-water

  8. Howard Oakley said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    The only rationale that I can imagine for drinking water that has been brought to the boil, whether consumed still hot or cold, is that this will reduce the chances of contracting gastrointestinal problems if the water is contaminated with pathogens.
    To render the water fully safe to drink, rather more has to be done (filtration, prolonged boiling, and/or chlorination), but one of the benefits of consuming drinks made of water that has been boiled is that it will reduce that risk.
    Many humans and animals spend their entire lives drinking cold or chilled water – without pathogens, preferably – and it has no ill effects.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    The number of humans and animals who spend their lives in urban areas drinking untreated water and poor sanitation with no ill effects, however, is lower.

  10. maidhc said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    I think there's some cultural expectations about what things are eaten hot or cold. I once worked with some Chinese people who used to buy potato chips (i.e., crisps) and heat them up in the microwave. Americans and Australians famously must have their beer ice cold, whereas the Brits don't. And Brits will eat things like sausage rolls and Cornish pasties cold, whereas I've seen an American literally grab a sausage roll out of the hand of someone who was going to eat it cold and insist that it be heated up.

    When I had chemotherapy I became very sensitive to both hot and cold, to the extent that I had to wear gloves to touch anything metal. I got used to eating everything at room temperature. Now I've become rather indifferent to food temperatures, but I can see that people find it intensely annoying – like fingernails on a blackboard – if I eat something like mashed potatoes at room temperature. Their expression is like a high school English teacher listening to someone repeatedly say "I could of cared less". I haven't had anyone grab my plate yet, but they hover and say things like "Can I heat that up for you?" in hopes of putting a stop to my outrageous behavior.

  11. julie lee said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

    @Howard Oakley

    Howard, thank you for the information on drinking chilled water.

  12. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 2:27 am

    As someone of Turkish (specifically Turkish-Cypriot) heritage, I can add that drinking iced water is an absolutely no-no among more traditionally minded Turks, who consider it a sure recipe for illness. I now live in the States (having grown up in the UK), and though I don't subscribe to the Turkish view, I can't for the life of me understand the American penchant for iced drinks, which I find both painful to swallow and lacking in taste.

  13. AG said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    Don't forget Astro Boy's mentor!

    …In my opinion the painful English "translations" of this character's name (along with the really misleading name Astro Boy itself) make a good case for always reading things in the original if possible.

  14. julie lee said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    @maidhc, and @Levantine

    maidhc, I enjoyed your remarks about the renegade act of eating mashed potatoes at room temperature.
    Levantine, glad to hear about the Turkish stricture against drinking iced water. From a traditional Chinese viewpoint, it is deplorable (even criminal) that children in America are given icy cold milk or water to drink all the time (and even when they have a cold or the flu). I mentioned this to a physician once, and she said, "Studies have shown that being exposed to cold has nothing to do with coming down with a cold." I wonder.
    As to taste, yes, iciness takes away much of the taste. I had to drink warm milk all through childhood and loathed it because of the strong scent..I'd pour my warm milk into the spittoon when no one was looking (but was soon found out). I didn't mind drinking milk in America at all because it was icy and had no scent. When you warm it, the scent of the milk comes out.

  15. bks said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Headline today:

    NEW ORLEANS — Mayor: Widespread loss of water pressure reported in New Orleans; boil advisory issued.


  16. Gianni said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 12:44 pm


    I am curious about the Cypriot cuisine. So Turkish Cypriots prefer hot drink while Greek Cypriots cold w/ ice? Do Turkish Cypriots consume Ouzo w/ ice?

  17. B.Ma said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    I'm Cantonese and the terms my family use are 沸水 for water that has been boiled and 冷沸水 for boiled water that has been cooled down. In a restaurant one orders 滾水 for hot water and 冻水 for ice cold water, 暖水 for room temp water. I've never heard the term 开水 before today and would have misparsed the signs which are the subject of this post like the computer translator did.

    Chinese people drink warm water (whether left to cool or not) because they do not trust that water from the tap is safe. Boiling it will kill any pathogens. This is probably a sensible thing to do in China even today, and everywhere when our grandparents were growing up.

    In western countries boiling water is no longer necessary as tap water is now safe to drink. Filtration may help to remove impurities from the local geology such as limescale. But if people are used to drinking warm water why force them to change?

    @julie lee, your comment about the cold and the physician is akin to the "traditional Chinese belief" that Chinese is a monosyllabic language that can never be written with an alphabet.

  18. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Gianni, Cypriot cuisine is largely the same for both communities on the island, though the Greeks use pork while the Turks do not. I don't know what the Greek-Cypriot view on ice is (I imagine it's traditionally the same as the Turkish), and I can't really say how Cypriots typically consume spirits (I myself don't drink). The view I was describing in my last post is that held by my grandmother and others of her generation; most young people do not subscribe to it, though even my Cypriot cousins (in their 30s and 40s) are more concerned than they should be about their children getting cold from drinking cold drinks.

    julie lee, thanks for the fascinating anecdotes! I agree with you about warm milk — unless there's chocolate or honey in it, I find it far too strong to be pleasant.

  19. joanne salton said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:13 am

    Personally, I have learned to eschew my former barbarity, and I now often drink hot boiled water as do the residents of the Middle Kingdom. Unless, of course, I actually wish to get my digestive system working through – cold water seems better for that………

    Why other Westerners have not noticed this phenomenon confuses me, it is a commonplace idea in East Asia, I think.

  20. Howard Oakley said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    Just a little correction to B.Ma's claim that "Boiling it will kill any pathogens."
    There are plenty of pathogens that are not killed by boiling, although most bacteria are taken out by a quick boil. In fact the best way to make suspect water potable is:
    1. Filter it to remove particles; there is a special bag designed for this purpose used quite widely by the military, known as a 'Millbank Bag'.
    2. Chlorinate using purification tablets for this purpose.
    Even then toxins will still be left in the water, and can cause quite unpleasant problems. A common one in some parts of the world are natural salts, known as 'Epsom salts', which cause diarrhoea. That of course tends to defeat the purpose of drinking water.
    All that said, bringing partially purified water to the boil certainly reduces the risk of problems, in places to a level that may appear acceptable.
    Sometimes a good bottle of beer – chilled or otherwise – or wine is preferable.

  21. julie lee said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    Here in America we commonly use Brita (brand) water filters to purify water at home. You can buy these Brita water filters at the drug store. It is based on carbon granules. Here is what Wikipedia says:
    "Carbon filtering is a method of filtering that uses a piece of activated carbon to remove contaminants and impurities, using chemical adsorption.
    Each piece of carbon is designed to provide a large section of surface area, in order to allow contaminants the most possible exposure to the filter media. One pound (450 g) of activated carbon contains a surface area of approximately 100 acres (40 Hectares)."

    I learned about carbon filtering when I was a small-town reporter and wrote (in the early 1980s) a piece about sewage-and-water treatment plants. They used carbon filtering to give us drinkable water. A member of my family also used Brita filters at home. Then he stopped. I asked why. He said: "You're probably drinking in a lot of chemicals from the filter, so I stopped, and now just drink tap water (which the city purifies)." He lives in Berkeley, which is very conscious about such things. However, when I was in nearby Cupertino (headquarters of Apple and Hewlett and Packard), I'd hear that Cupertino's water was undrinkable (too many harmful chemicals from the computer industry). Later, in Palo Alto, a Chinese Ph.D. engineer told me: "You don't have to filter your water at home here. Palo Alto is always saying how good its (treated) water is. I drink tap water."

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

    I am a great fan of Brita filters. Couldn't live without one. Normally, I first filter my water with my Brita, then boil it. Usually I drink tea or just plain, hot water. Sometimes I drink the water that has been boiled and allowed to come to room temperature in a pitcher. I would never put the water in a refrigerator. Seldom do I drink cold water except when I am in a restaurant, but my wife would always ask for hot water when we went to restaurants, which often caused the waiters to ask if that was what she really wanted.

    I drink small amounts of water from the tap in places where the chlorination is not too strong.

    New York has excellent water that is transported to the city in huge pipes from upstate New York. I find it to be very tasty and will drink it out of the tap with delight.

    My brother Dave was a top water chemist, and he was a strong advocate of carbon filtration.

  23. Gianni said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

    So has Brita become a word for "water filter"? Interestingly I saw it on

  24. julie lee said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    "In western countries boiling water is no longer necessary as tap water is now safe to drink. Filtration may help to remove impurities from the local geology such as limescale."
    I am not a chemist However, this I learned as a reporter: Municipal filtration of water began as a measure against bacteria. By the early 80s (when I wrote my piece on sewage-and-water treatment plants) the big, new, problem was (manmade) organic chemicals in our tap water, chemicals realeased into the water from factories, farms, city and hospital garbage and our own flush toilets (when we flush down the toilet all the chemicals such as anti-biotics, drugs of all kinds, hormones from birth-control pills, etc. etc. that we had ingest and expell) which we had manufactured especially since the 1950s. The bacteria-filtering plants wasn't up to the task. Carbon filtration was the new filtration method. But even in the early 80s, most local sewage and water treatment plants were still the old bacteria-filtering kind. Carbon filtration for organic chemicals was being introduced. Tap water often has a strong taste of chlorine. Boiling it seems to improve it. But I filter and boil my tap water also because in America our pipes are very old and should be replaced (but most city councils are still debating it–whether to raise local taxes for the replacement.)

  25. Sockatume said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    I feel culturally impelled to respond to maidhc and point out that British people do not drink their beer, cider etc. "warm". The big name-brand lagers in particular would never be presented to a patron at anything higher than the ice-cold temperature to which an American is accustomed. Ales aren't served quite that cold because they were created (and their taste optimised) at a time when the coldest available temperature was that of your cellar. Yet they're still meant to be below room temperature when they are consumed.

    (That they remain entirely potable at room temperature, unlike your average lager, is a welcome side effect.)

    Of course there are some iconoclastic modern brewers who develop ales with flavour profiles better suited to refrigerator temperatures.

  26. PeterL said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    In Japanese, 水 (mizu) means "cold water" and 湯 (yu) is "hot water". From Chinese menus, I gather that 湯 means "soup" in modern Chinese, but a Chinese friend told me that long ago it meant "hot water", presumably at the time when Japanese borrowed kanji from China.
    (Both 水 and 湯 often have the honorific "o-" in front of them and "yu" ("hot water") is often written in hiragana, especially at hot-springs – you can see examples by doing an image search for ゆのれん).

    O-cha-no-mizu (お茶の水 or 御茶ノ水), literrally "(honorific) tea's water" is an area in Tokyo (as well as Atro Boy's mentor) … it seems to refer to (cold) water (from the river), used to make the shogun's tea.

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