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The Mysterious Impact Food Can Have on the Body (according to TCM)

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There is an old Chinese saying,


(yào bǔ bù rú shí bǔ)

The benefits of medicine are not as great as those of good nutrition.


I think most of us would agree with that statement, especially in more recent years as we begin to realize the negative effects of carbs and positives of eating more fat. It seems that while the west was struggling with this simple issue, China had staying healthy down.

Instead of concerning themselves with trans fats, unsaturated fats and which one is really bad for you, the laws of how to eat ‘healthily’ , or ‘how to keep your body ‘balanced’ and therefore not get sick has existed for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There are many elements to keeping the body balanced, but most of it centers around how the consumption of certain foods and flavours affect Yin and Yang.

Yin 阴 (yīn) and Yang 阳 (yáng) are the two major elements of the body that must work together along with Shen (shén) to achieve harmony in the body. Yin is the substance of the body, for example, the organs, blood etc, where as Yang is the ‘energy’. Shen are the emotions that are also affected if Yin and Yang are not balanced. different symptoms will occur, depending on whether it is the Yin or Yang that is unstable.

You can learn more about the effects of certain foods on Yin and Yang in the infographic below.

The 5 Flavours 五味 (wǔ wèi)

Flavours and tastes are also an important part of Chinese culture, most importantly 酸甜苦辣 (suān tián kǔ là) sour, sweet, bitter and spicy, which is also a chengyu meaning ‘the joys and sorrows of life’. With the addition of salty (xián) , these five flavours provide harmony, not only to the body, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, but also to provide great tasting food. The five flavours are not meant to be found in one dish, but over several dishes served together, and then balanced with tea.

According to Chinese history, the ‘five flavor principle’ has been ingrained in Chinese culture since the time of the Xia Dynasty circa 21st – 16th Century BCE, when the sage, Yin spoke of their importance.

The five different flavours work on different parts of the body to promote good health.

Sour (suān)

The sour flavour is seen as being able to stop diarrhea and quench thirst. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, vinegar is often boiled to prevent the spread of sickness, especially amongst children. Sour food is most frequently found in the south of China, in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces where pickling vegetables was necessary to preserve food.

Sweet (tián)

Sweet foods can help improve mood and neutralize the body of illness. The sweet flavour is often seen in the culinary creations of eastern China, for example Fujian and Zhejiang province.

Bitter (kǔ)

The bitter flavour helps rid the body of ‘heat’ and can help strengthen the stomach. It is often used in cooking to reduce ‘fishiness’ or to improve the flavour of meat. It is also strongly connected to the flavour of medicinal Chinese cuisine.

Spicy (là)

Spicy foods are most commonly found in central China in the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan, the home of all things 麻辣 (má là), hot and numbing. It is often referred to as ‘pungent’ and wards aware any evil. The positive effects, such as aiding blood circulation and curing colds works to promote good qi.

Salty (xián)

Salty dishes are found mainly on the coastlines, due to the proximity to sea salt. Although salt is good for improving the flavour of a dish, it should be consumed sparingly because of it’s negative health effects.


Drinking Hot Water

I’m not particularly well travelled, but I’ve never heard any one come back from a holiday and exclaim “they drink cold water there!” However, if you’ve been to China, or known someone who has been and spent time in Chinese restaurants or with Chinese people, you might have heard that in China it’s common, even in the summer time, to drink hot water.

Drinking or eating cold things, especially when it’s cold weather, is pretty much frowned upon:

“You want a cold beer?” Sideways look from suspicious waitress.

“Of course!” Amazed look from foreigner.

If you want anything cold you usually have to be pretty specific that you want said drink to be cold when you order it, otherwise it’s pretty likely you’re going to get a room temperature beer, or a steaming glass of water.

I have to be honest, the longer I’m in China, the more frequently I just drink the warm/hot water that is served to me, unless I’m in a western bar/restaurant in which case it’s a bit weird. Similarly to my revelation about Feng Shui and the ‘science’ behind it, I have also come to realize that there is also common sense behind drinking warm water.

Although to us, drinking hot water when it’s 35 degrees outside just sounds like complete madness, there is logic to it. The idea of drinking hot water, and not eating certain types of food all stems back to Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM.

Hot water solves EVERYTHING. According to Chinese medicine, warm and hot water helps alleviate inflamed and sore muscles and so helps with circulation. Under the weather, drink hot water? Sore throat? Drink hot water. But when you think logically about this, don’t we also use heat to soothe pain or illness in the west? When I had a sore throat as a child, my mum would always make me tomato soup with chopped up hot dogs in it. The heat would make the uncomfortable feeling in my throat lesson, and of course, who doesn’t like hot dogs? We also use heat pads on strained muscles or hot water bottles to alleviate menstrual cramps. Also, when you have flu or a cold, a cup of tea can really make you feel better, or is that just me being British?

Anyway, enough on the hot water front, and on to food.

I’m not talking about hot that’s actually served hot or cold, I’m talking specifically about how certain flavours, foods and in particular, fruits can be associated with ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ and how they can affect your body based on the weather, season or body type.

The Heating and Cooling Effects of Food on the Body

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine