Qi, wind and the common cold | Confinement basics

“Be careful of the wind” is one of the most commonly heard phrases in the Chinese lexicon, alongside “have you eaten?”. Wind-related illnesses include the common cold, a full-on flu, arthritis, rheumatism, migraine, stomachaches, stroke and so forth. The list is so extensive that you might wonder if “wind” is just a bogeyman for illnesses that have no other identifiable origin. 

But ask anyone who’s caught a flu after being out on a windy day. They’ll tell you that “wind” and its related illnesses are very real. 

Before we get to why the Chinese are obsessed with [avoiding] wind, you’ll need to have a good grasp of some fundamentals. Namely, the mysterious ethereal substance called qi (), the types of qi in the environment, and how wind can be “evil” when it is present in abundance.

What is qi?

Healers in prehistoric times believed that diseases were the result of demonic influence or possession. Lacking in medical knowledge, they sought solace from celestial powers and essentially relied on prayer for cures. With time and a few centuries worth of observation, the demons were replaced by the concept of qi, an energy loosely translated as “life force” or “vital energy”.

Qi is an energy that flows within one’s body and in one’s surroundings. The word itself (氣) has 2 components: “vapour, steam or gas” (气) and “rice or grain” (米), illustrating the symbiotic relationship between one’s energy and food. Today the traditional term for qi has been simplified to just the first component. 

Qi is generally used in 2 ways in Traditional Chinese Medicine: bodily qi and abstract metaphysical qi.

Bodily qi

Bodily qi is a pragmatic concept used to describe the functioning of various organs. For instance, a person with a bodily problem (eg. weak breathing patterns) may be said to have a disorder related to the relevant organ’s qi (eg. deficient in lung qi).

The flow of bodily qi is guided by li (), loosely translated as patterns or systems. The meridian system (jing luo, or 经络), is one such system.

Source: Wikipedia. Click on the image to learn more about the meridian system.

So if you were to be suffering from knee pain, an acupuncturist might diagnose your ailment as qi blockage in the meridian which runs from your middle toe, knee, lower back and all the way to your lower eye. He might then stick needles in your lower back and toe before moxibustion – to cure your knee. 

Metaphysical qi

On a metaphysical level qi is the “energetic foundation of the universe, analogous to the matter-energy theoretical constructs of modern physics.”[1] There are numerous categories of qi, including bodily qi (explained above). 

The practice of Chinese confinement is more concerned with upright qi (Zheng Qi, or 正气), postnatal qi (Hou Tian Zhi Qi or 后天之气), food qi (Gu Qi or 谷气) and qi in the environment.

Environmental Qi: Liu Qi and Liu Yin

Environmental Qi comprises six factors: wind (feng, or 风), cold (han, or 寒), heat (shu, or 暑), damp (shi, or 湿), dryness (zhao, or 燥), and fire (huo, or 火). We’ll refer to them as Liu Qi (literally, the six qi or 六气).

Wind has the worst reputation among all the six factors – quite unfairly so. We’ll get to that in the next section, after understanding more about Liu Qi.  

The composition of Liu Qi changes according to the climate and season. Wind is more present in autumn, the cold during the winter, heat and damp during spring, and dryness and fire during the summer. Ditto for tropical climates like Singapore (high humidity and heat) and polar climates like Antarctica (high cold and dryness). 

To stay healthy and disease-free, one’s bodily qi has to correspond with Liu Qi. This is harder than it sounds, given the complexity of the human body and the climate. 

For example, the human body is generally well-adapted to the summer climate in Beijing. This hypothetical person (let’s call him John) could walk outdoors wearing just a T-shirt and shorts and be perfectly happy. But come winter, when the cold and dryness factors of Liu Qi are more abundant, John had better bundle himself with a down jacket before heading out, or risk contracting pneumonia.

John is also likely to be a happy guy in Singapore on an average cloudy day. But come monsoon season, if he isn’t prepared to deal with the rain and wind (ie. abundant damp and wind), he’s going to be nursing a common cold on most days of the week. 

These changing factors of Liu Qi are the common causes of everyday illnesses. When environmental conditions adversely affect health, Liu Qi is known as the Liu Yin (literally, the six excesses or 六淫). Liu Yin is sometimes known as Liu Xie (the six evils , 六邪) when weather changes become extreme, or when people get more pissed off. 

External responses to liu yin

Witch doctors (or priests, monks, shamans etc) of yore used to deal with Liu Yin by conjuring spirits and gods that controlled the weather. Was there a thunderstorm today? Oh, let’s sacrifice a chicken to the Thunder God. Are the farmers all bedridden with breathing difficulties after being in the rain? Let’s kill a few more.

These days dealing with the changing weather has become general common sense. Wear clothing appropriate to the climate; deploy climate-control technologies indoors (heaters, air-conditioning, humidifiers etc) when the weather becomes unbearable outdoors. 

Internal RESPONSES TO LIU YIN

Another way of dealing with Liu Yin is to ensure that one’s bodily qi is well-equipped to adapt to it. This takes a different type of qi, called Zheng Qi (literally, Upright Qi or 正气). Think of it as the Chinese equivalent to your immune system.[2]  

A person with strong Zheng Qi can withstand, say, an afternoon out in a rainstorm without catching a cold. A person deficient in Zheng Qi, on the other hand, could fall ill after being exposed to some rain while waiting at a bus stop. Old people, postpartum women and babies all have a shortage of Zheng Qi.

"Wind is the cause of a hundred illnesses"

Wind is the cause of a hundred illneses 风为百病之长

Think of wind as a catalyst. Wind alone is not harmful, and is one of the six factors in Liu Qi. We need wind literally, to keep things moving. Wind helps to carry pollen to flowers; waves in the ocean create movement for aquatic beings; you need movement in the air to be able to breathe. 

However, wind also exacerbates the conditions of Liu Yin, making one more prone to falling ill. It is then known as an “evil wind” or pathogenic wind (Xie Qi, or 邪气). 

Let’s get back to John in Singapore. Stuck in the rain, he decides to make a run for the nearest bus stop before heading home for a warm shower. He’s already exposed to an abundance of cold and damp. But if he then faces a sudden gust of wind, his chances of falling ill multiply.

A more formal (and dramatic) way of describing the above is “wind-invasion”. According to the classic text The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing, or 黄帝内经):

When the body is invaded from outside [by wind], its defensive capabilities are weakened, causing a mismatch in the opening and the closing of the pores in the entire body, leading to the invasion of other pathogenic factors causing diseases with symptoms such as a headaches, nasal obstruction, painful and itching throat, facial edema, abnormal aversion to wind, and perspiration.”

The common cold vs. "wind disorders"

The common cold is one typical disorder caused by “wind invasion”. But, as anyone who’s been through endless visits to the neighbourhood GP, pharmaceutical medication sometimes just don’t work.

Chinese physicians have a different approach to the common cold, diagnosing each patient according to the factors of Liu Yin. Here in sunny-rainy-windy Singapore, there are 3 common wind disorders that are usually synonymous with the common cold. 

wind-cold disorder

Caused by: standing under air-conditioning with the fan blowing at full speed

Symptoms: an aversion to wind and chill and accompanied by fever, headaches and generalised aches, a runny nose, and a cough.

WIND-hot DISORDER

Caused by: exercising under the afternoon sun and then standing in front of a fan to cool off

Symptoms: fever, sweating, headaches, red eyes, sore throat, photosensitivity, thirst, a cough with yellow and dense sputum, respiratory problems, constipation, and epistaxis.

WIND-damp DISORDER

Caused by: running in the rain and then standing under the air-conditioning with wet clothes

Symptoms: sore limbs, listlessness, nausea, anorexia, and diarrhoea; can cause more complex diseases like arthritis.[3]

Simple herbal remedies for common wind disorders

Herbal remedies for wind disorders all work to either expel wind and disperse the cold (Qu Feng San Han or 祛風散寒) and to ward off further “wind invasions” by inducing sweat (Fa Han Jie Biao or 發汗解表). 

The best thing about these simple remedies is that they do not interfere with pharmaceutical medication. Drink the soup, eat the meds and settle down for a nice long nap with a blanket. 

Here are 3 of my favourites remedies: 

ginger and brown sugar tea

How to make: brew everything in a pot and drink while hot. Add dried orange peel for extra fragrance (there’s medicinal value too) or scallions if you’re adventurous. Substitute the brown sugar with honey if you like.

garlic,ginger,scallions + protein

How to make: stir fry ginger and garlic until fragrant, throw in a protein (fish works well, or oyster mushrooms for a vegetarian substitute), salt to taste and eat while hot. Remember to gobble up the ginger and scallions too. 

Chicken soup + white pepper

How to make: boil chicken bones with garlic and whole white pepper. Add scallions prior to serving together with noodles for a more filling meal. 

Notes

[1] The Qi Encyclopedia does a great job at explaining the fundamentals of qi and its categories. 

[2] Zheng Qi is both inherited, and then acquired over the course of a lifetime. Some babies, for instance, are born healthy while others are born with congenital disorders. As the babies mature into adolescents and then adults, they continue to acquire or deplete their Zheng Qi through nutritional and lifestyle choices. 

[3] Most confinement superstitions, such as avoiding baths, are designed to help postpartum women prevent illnesses caused by wind-damp disorders.

No one likes Benedictine DOM in their kailan but this is why we eat it anyway

Benedictine DOM is known as DOM in both Malaysia and Singapore. It is made from a highly confidential list of 27 herbs and spices which include myrrh (Mo Yao, or 没药) and angelica root (Dang Dui, or 当归).

Everyone thinks that Benedictine DOM is a core part of postpartum nutrition. Everyone assumes that it is medically essential and even “indispensable”. Some even assume that you have to finish an entire bottle within the 40 days after delivery.

But no one knows that this assumption is mostly based on a brilliant marketing campaign which took a life of its own. Curious about how a sweet French liqueur became a staple for Chinese postpartum recovery? Read on!

Did you know?

Benedictine DOM is sold globally in North America, Europe and in Asia (specifically southern China and Southeast Asia). But only in Asia is DOM used mainly as a confinement tonic among Chinese communities. Sales are divided almost equally between the regions.

This means that confinement women are consuming nearly 30% of Benedictine DOM’s global supply annually.

The beginnings: Benedictine DOM as a digestive tonic for European colonists

Benedictine DOM today may be synonymous with Chinese women in confinement, but it has its roots in the pretty coastal town of Fecamp in Normandy, France.

Fecamp Benedictine DOM
Fecamp, the hometown of Benedictine DOM. Image source: Tripadvisor

First launched in 1863 by a French aristocrat named Alexandre Le Grand, whose family ran a successful wine and spirits export business, the sweet 40% proof liqueur was marketed as a medical tonic based on an ancient elixir created by the Benedictine monks of Fecamp in 1510.

While some sources claim that the original recipe (purportedly created by a monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli) is now kept in a vault in Geneva, most have called bull on the marketing myth.

Either way, liqueurs, particularly those incorporating exotic herbs and spices, were incredibly fashionable as a status symbol among the European gentry at that time, DOM quickly became a hit. By 1864, Le Grand had trademarked both the name “Benedictine”, as well as the iconic bottle shape of the liqueur.

Three years later, DOM found its way from the bustling port of Fecamp to Singapore, which was also experiencing an economic boom. The steamship had just been launched and the British Crown Colony was enjoying rapid growth driven by entrepot trade.

Following the marketing strategy in France, advertisements of DOM were targetted at the English-speaking European gentry. In any case, the majority of the population (ie. the Chinese) were uneducated would likely have spent their salary on opium, not fancy liqueur.

benedictine dom advertisement 1866
The first advertisement of DOM in Singapore promoted the liqueur as a panacea for epidemic diseases, including cholera. #notsureifreallyeffective. Published in Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 26 July 1866. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Sales of DOM in Singapore were slow in the first few decades after the launch. Even in 1898 (the date of the first available sales figures from the Benedictine archives), only 180 bottles were shipped to Singapore and another 180 to Penang.   

The first Chinese consumers of Benedictine: the Straits-born Chinese and newly wealthy coolies

The first Chinese company to make an order of DOM was Yong Lee Seng & Co., which ordered 120 bottles of Benedictine in 1908. As the shop was staffed with Straits-born Chinese who were fluent English speakers, it is likely that these were the first Chinese exposed to imported European liqueurs such as DOM.

Yong Lee Seng & Co benedictine DOM import
Yong Lee Seng & Co was a large grocery store which also functioned a bread supplier for the British army. It had two shops: at 27 Kling Street (bottom) and at 170-173 Orchard Road (right). Kling Street was later renamed Chulia Street. Image source: Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (1908), Wright, Arnold, pp 721

But by the 1940s, particularly after World War 2, another key customer segment emerged: the middle class Chinese population that had grown wealthy from the post-war rubber boom.

The first Chinese advertisements of DOM made their appearance after the second world war in 1948. Featuring a cherub holding the iconic bottle, these were not entirely different from what was published in the English papers.

Tonic wines have been consumed by the Chinese since the invention of alcohol itself during the Xia dynasty (BC 2070-1600). Thus the introduction of DOM, a French herbal liqueur, was unlikely to have been a novel item for the Chinese population in the British crown colonies in Southeast Asia.

But as it was perceived as a luxury good available almost exclusively to the Europeans, or wealthy Chinese elite, DOM was naturally adopted as a status symbol by the Chinese middle class once there was an economic upswing.

To the surprise of the French owners of Benedictine DOM, it wasn’t the social climbing Chinese elites that formed Benedictine’s main consumer base. Rather, it was the humble coolies working in the rubber plantations and tin mines.

Eastern Agencies (1946) Ltd, the sole agent for DOM in the Far East reported the following in a letter to the Fecamp headquarters:

“Although Bénédictine is the most requested cordial in clubs, hotels and restaurants, this branch of the business remains very low and represents an unisgnificant percentage of the turnover. Most of the volume is sold in retail stores, one bottle at a time.”

But wait, but how would coolies afford to drink imported wine?

As a premium product imported from France, purchasing a bottle of DOM from the local store would have been regarded as a luxury and only done on celebratory occasions. For instance, during a particularly good year for rubber sales.

According to DOM’s sales records, imports in Malaya and Singapore peaked at 234,000 bottles in 1951 – an astounding year for the working-class in Singapore. 

That year, rubber prices more than quintupled to over USD 2 per pound compared to USD 0.35 per pound in 1949 while tin prices similarly had tripled during the same period.

Rubber price benedictine dom
Image source: The World Bank

 

In another letter to the Fecamp headquarters written in 1951, Eastern Agencies wrote:

“… there is a very considerable amount of additional money in circulation, and trading conditions have become extremely active. The workers who have gained good advantage from the boom are the rubber tappers and the tin coolies. Both these categories are known to be consumers of Benedictine.

… Now that people enjoy strong spending power, trade in Malaya is progressing on a very important scale and, for your information, I would point out that our successes have not been limited to Benedictine, but have also been enjoyed by many of our other lines which are consumed by the Chinese.”

Click on images below to see the letter, written on 16 Feb 1951. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

The importance of Malaya and Singapore as a market soon became obvious to the management in Fecamp. In 1949, M Seward, the manager of Eastern Agencies visited Fecamp for the first time. Subsequently members of the Le Grand family visited the region in 1966 and again in 1969.

By then, the region then became the fourth largest market for Benedictine, after France, the USA and the UK. 

Popularity among new mothers

Besides the rubber tappers and tin miners, Eastern Agencies soon began marketing DOM as a herbal tonic to other sectors of the working class, including Samsui women and coolies working on the docks. The comics below, for example, explain how consuming DOM was beneficial as a preventive tonic for workers frequently exposed to the elements.

The trend soon caught on among new mothers undergoing confinement, a large consumer base for herbal tonics. While the original formula may have been created in France, the liqueur did contain one of the key ingredients essential in postpartum nutrition – angelica root (Dang Gui, or 当归), which is known as ginseng for women.

The potential for sales in this niche was apparent to Eastern Agencies, which proceeded to run a series of advertisements in both English and Chinese papers, promoting the herbal benefits of the liqueur for new mothers. 

The first advertisement targetted at new mothers appeared in 1954. Featuring a mother having a conversation with her daughter-in-law over a cup of tea, it extolls the virtues of DOM as the king of herbal wines, particularly for recovering postpartum women.

Nanyang Siang Pau on 12 May 1954. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

This continued into the 1960s and 1970s when Eastern Agencies continued to position Benedictine as the “King of Tonics”, touting the health benefits of the 27 secret herbs within the liqueur.  At this point, the ads targetted at confinement women continued to be run alongside more generic ads, and ads targetted at male workers.

That Benedictine was so readily adopted by Chinese women as part of their postpartum recovery came as a surprise even to the CEO of the company. In a 1969 report from his visit, the new CEO of Benedictine, Pierre Le Grand remarked (after complaining about the tiring tropical heat) that

“The way our liqueur is savoured by the Chinese community, especially Chinese women, is truly amazing…”

Longer excerpt of the letter here. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

Aside from the popularity of the Benedictine, Le Grand noted that the liqueur was known among Chinese consumers as “DOM” and not Benedictine; a practice that still exists today.

Did you know? The prominent “DOM” on the bottle refers to “Deo Optimo Maximo,” the latin motto of the Benedictine order, which translates to “God infinitely good, infinitely great.” DOM also refers to the Latin word Dominus (Master) given to Benedictine abbots. So every time you refer to Benedictine DOM as “DOM” for short, you are effectively, praising a Christian god. Go figure!

1980s: “DOM” as a cultural tradition in Southeast Asia

By the 1980s, the association of Benedictine with the practice of confinement was so strong that distributors of the liqueur ceased to continue running product advertisements, relying mainly on giveaways of products related to motherhood.

An advertisement published in 1982, for example, touted a free gift pack with every purchase of the liqueur. The pack included Cussons baby power,  and two bars of soap worth $6.50.

Published in Sin Chew Jit Poh on 12 July 1982. Image source: Singapore National Library website

Another advert published in 1988 publicised a monthly lucky draw for anyone who purchased a bottle of Benedictine, displaying a deep understanding of Chinese superstition.

For instance, the advertisement campaign indicated that, aside from the monthly lucky draw when eight lucky participants would receive vouchers worth $500 each, there would be a “grand” lucky draw on the 8th of August that year. This was an especially auspicious date due to the conspicuous number of “8”s on the date 8/8/88.

The display of a male infant atop a dragon also showed an understanding that the 1988, the year of the dragon, was an especially auspicious year to have baby boys.

Lianhe Wan Bao on 25 March 1988. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Disclaimer: Benedictine DOM is actually not a medically beneficial tonic

From a cordial concocted by a French aristocrat in Normandy to a confinement staple for Chinese women, the marketing campaign by Eastern Agencies took a life of its own.

Today the brand association of Benedictine with confinement is so strong that all Chinese women assume that consuming the liqueur is medically beneficial by sheer tradition.

A Google search for “DOM” and “confinement” bears testament to this. A post on motherhood website momswisdom.net for example, states:

Rice wine, sesame seed oil, old ginger, black vinegar, Dom Benedictine tonic are the most common condiments added to confinement food…. Dom Benedictine tonic is added to soups to help the post pregnancy body recuperate. The alcohol evaporates in the cooking, but drinking the Dom Benedictine tonic neat increases its efficacy.

… I only drank the soups with Dom Benedictine tonic added during my first confinement period. I don’t think that was enough. During my second and third confinements, I polished off more than 3 bottles of Dom Benedictine tonic during each of the 40 day confinement periods. Half was used in my soups, half I drank neat during my evening ’bouts of drinking’.

There are also numerous confinement recipes available online which show creative ways of incorporating the liqueur in dishes such as stewed chicken. Some confinement nannies even use Benedictine in stir fried vegetables or steamed fish (spoiler alert: both are horrible).

Yet all Chinese physicians will tell you that there are better ways of consuming angelica root (Dang Gui) and that the potential health hazards from consuming strong wines (Benedictine is 40% alcohol!) far outweigh any of its perceived medical benefits.

A marketing representative from Bacardi that I spoke to admitted that while Benedictine was indeed marketed as a tonic in the past, and that the perception of the liqueur having immense medical benefits for postpartum recovery has become custom, the company has not promoted the liqueur as such for some time. Especially since the World Health Organisation has classified Benedictine DOM as an alcoholic drink.

It would not be socially responsible, he said, revealing some plans to position the liqueur as a cocktail ingredient rather than a tonic, as it is in the rest of the world. He added (in a follow up email):

“While consuming alcohol in moderation can be part of a balanced lifestyle, we will never promote any of our brands as being beneficial for medicinal or therapeutic purposes…

Very clear guidelines are… giv[en] by our company and all our brands are following these guidelines, and so do our distributors around the world.

On one hand, as it is with all traditions, it would be a pity for such a custom to be lost as the Benedictine brand is repositioned. On the other, it’s about damn time we stopped using a sweet liqueur in a stir fry.

Note 1: Special thanks to the Bacardi group for information from the Benedictine archives! 

Note 2: Any copyright violations within this post are entirely my fault. If I’ve mistakenly posted what I shouldn’t have, please leave a message and we’ll get it resolved. Thanks!