What the Heck is “Shanghuo”?: Yin-Yang, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Finding Balance in China

Project Pengyou summer intern, Ellen Hao, gives her take on the commonly misunderstood concept of “shanghuo”.


Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 5.55.31 PM
Screencap from a 立白蓝天六必治 advertisement, a toothpaste that claims to prevent and alleviate shanghuo.

When eating spicy food in a Sichuan restaurant you might find yourself reaching for a cup of water to put out the fire, or you could have some 加多宝 (jiaduobao). 加多宝 is a cool tea that combats 上火 (shanghuo), or excess internal heat which arises from spicy food as well as a variety of other causes. It isn’t heat in the temperature-sense; this is a different understanding of heat.

If you’ve heard of “shanghuo” but still find the concept confounding, never fear! We’ve put together a short intro to the concept to help you put out the fire.

What is shanghuo?

If you search for shanghuo on Google, there are countless questions on forums like Quora and YahooAnswers such as, ‘Can Westerners feel shanghuo?’ and ‘Is shanghuo real?’ Look it up on Baidu, on the other hand, and you get pages with more questions like, ‘上火吃什么?’  (What should I eat if I have shanghuo?), and ’身体感觉火气很大,经常上火是什么原因?’ (My body feels like it has a lot of internal heat, what are the causes of frequent shanghuo?’).

Clearly, shanghuo is a reality of everyday Chinese life that’s taken for granted, but there seems to be no equivalent concept in the West.

To understand what shanghuo is, we’ll need a little introduction into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Essentially, TCM holds that the body and spirit should be balanced between two forms of energy, 阴 (yin), which is cold, and 阳 (yang), which is hot. If your body collects too much yang, this excess yang means that your body has too much internal heat, AKA shanghuo. Too much yin, and you have ‘coldness’. It’s sort of like homeostasis. you don’t want your body temperature to suddenly spike and wildly fluctuate; reaching an equilibrium is best.

What Causes Shanghuo?

So essentially, shanghuo is caused by a disequilibrium between hot and cold in your body and spirit. According to TCM, energy is the source of life, and food is a major source of energy (which doesn’t sound too different from your biology textbook), so it makes sense that some foods can have more yang, or 热气 (heat) than others.

Foods that have more 阳 (yang): lychee, mango, lamb, coffee, kiwi, durian, chocolate, mandarin oranges, (spicy) crayfish
Foods that have more 阴 (yin): preserved duck egg, banana, kelp, bitter melon, tomato, duck blood, chrysanthemum tea, hairy crab, pear

These categorizations aren’t set in stone – just search on Baidu if a food can cause shanghuo or not and you’ll find pages of disputes for some food. Before you write off shanghuo, it’s good to remember that the way different bodies react to the same food can vary a lot – there’s a reason human biology is complex – and the preparation of food can affect the body’s reaction to it.

Additionally, external factors like the weather and emotional experiences can also impact how much yin vs. yang you have in your body. Hot summer weather as well as stress and frustration can also cause shanghuo.



What Does Shanghuo Feel Like?

Roughly translates to, “Too much heat causes nosebleeds”.

This is probably the trickiest part to understand. Shanghuo can have several symptoms, which are generally connected to a sense of inflammation. It’s generally characterized as redness, swelling, fever, and pain, however acne, a sore throat, a nosebleed, skin rashes, swollen gums, and canker sores are also symptoms connected to shanghuo.

For some people, shanghuo is more of a feeling that you might get sick soon. It is a signal that your body is in disequilibrium and if righted can prevent illness. Many people feel that an understanding of shanghuo can help fill in the gaps of Western medicine. Take canker sores for example. The exact cause of canker sores (ulcers on the inside of your mouth) is unknown; they’ve been connected to stress, tissue injury, or particularly acidic foods, but Western science doesn’t come to a consensus. According to the rules of TCM, however, canker sores not only have a cause, but a prevention tactic!

How Can I Alleviate Shanghuo?

Just as food can cause shanghuo, so can it get rid of it, or 去火 (quhuo). Rather than fighting fire with fire, in TCM fire should be fought with water. Eat some more watermelon, have some chrysanthemum tea. In reverse, if you’ve had too many yin foods, like steamed hairy crab, pour yourself some hot ginger tea.

Preventing shanghuo through food remedies can help to get rid of minor symptoms and discomforts that might not be clinically recognizable in Western medicine as a diagnosable disease. This is part of the important cultural significance of shanghuo. Shanghuo is not a life-threatening disease or a traumatic injury. Instead, it’s a different metric for health, which comes with its own causes and remedies. Understanding shanghuo can give you a new look at how some Chinese people understand their health in connection with their lifestyles. It’s not about fixing yourself permanently, but rather figuring out how to keep your body balanced.

I Still Don’t Get It.

Coming from a background without much experience with TCM, it can be hard to connect all these symptoms under one name. This is a brief introduction into just one facet of TCM, and certainly doesn’t describe its full complexity! (I’m still figuring it out myself.) Shanghuo is a historical and cultural category, built upon thousands of years of observation, and it remains relevant in people’s everyday lives as a guide for how to live a healthy life. While shanghuo might not align at all with your views on health, some Chinese people are also skeptical about shanghuo as a medical diagnoses.

Think about it this way: it’s like inserting information into a different framework. Under western medicine, you might think that getting a sore throat after eating durian is directly related to a specific chemical in the fruit. Under TCM, this symptom is not a specific, direct byproduct of some compound, but rather part of an overarching, large-scale understanding of different types of energy.

But hey, maybe the next time you hit up that Sichuan restaurant, you can try ordering some 加多宝.