Chinese water torture

waterA simple word that throws a lot of foreigners for a loop in China is 水 shuǐ – water. Many of us have had the experience of asking for 水 shuǐ and receiving a blank stare.

Condensed to a one-word translation, 水 does indeed mean water. The problem is that “water” doesn’t mean in Chinese what it means in English.

As a concept based language, a lot of Chinese words – especially the “simple” ones – represent a wider concept than the simple English word assigned to them in translation. In English, when I say I want to drink “water” I am being very clear. In Chinese, not so much. Most beverages are considered to be a type of 水.  So when you say you want to drink “水” you’ll probably be asked “what kind of 水?”

If you go into a fast food place and say “I want a burger,” you’ll be asked “what kind of burger” as there are several on the menu. Another example would be certain parts of the US where “coke” is a generic term referring to all different kinds of soft drinks/soda. In those places, when you ask for a coke you may well be asked “what kind of coke”. This is similar to asking for 水 in China.

Most foreigners have experienced the blank stare response to asking for 水 – perhaps now you understand why.

During my first year as a student in China I grew puzzled that 水 wasn’t working, so one day I waited and watched at a newspaper stand to see what Chinese people asked for when buying bottled water. Over the years I paid attention to the different ways Chinese request water in different circumstances. What I learned is that no one ever asks for 水. What do they do instead? They specify what kind of 水! So, here are 5 common 水 options I’ve learned over the years:

矿泉水 kuàng quán shuǐ
This is what I learned at the news stand. It means “mineral water” or “spring water” – in other words, bottled water. Unfortunately, this is a big tonguetwister, and not easy to say even for intermediate speakers of Mandarin, especially with tones thrown in. I had to do a lot of practise before I could get it out smoothly. Still, if you can wrap your mouth around it, it is the clearest way to get what you want.

白开水 bái kāi shuǐ
This means “plain boiled water”. It’s the closest to asking for ordinary water, but you can’t be sure whether it will come to you cool or warm. Depending where you are, there may be no option – the water is whatever temperature it is. If you’re in a restaurant it’s good to specify your preferred temperature.

热水 rè shuǐ 
This simply means “hot water,” a common request here. It usually comes boiling hot so I rarely order it (unless I want to warm my hands!)

保温水 bǎo wēn shuǐ
This means something like “room temperature” or “lukewarm” water (also abbreviated to simply wēn shuǐ). This is another common request in China. Traditionally, Chinese rarely drink cold water since many believe it gives a person indigestion.

冰水 bīng shuǐ
Meaning “ice water,” this is a good way to get a glass of cold water. 冰 bīng means “ice” so it makes it clear you’re serious about cold water. Since Chinese rarely drink cold water it’s an unusual request outside of restaurants with foriegn clientele. It’s becoming more common, but if you’re in a small town or with an older woman, you will probably get either a blank stare or a lecture. Occasionally, you may end up being served warm water with ice in it (warm bai kai shui with bing).

Well, that’s my introduction to the “simple” task of asking for water in Chinese. I hope you find it useful!

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11 thoughts on “Chinese water torture

  1. Haha. Here in Malaysia, we use 白开水 too for plain water, generally understood to be lukewarm water. When we want cold water we ask for 冷水 leng shui. When we want ice water we ask for 冰水bing shui. But when we want to drink water – plain water generally understood to be lukewarm – people understand when you just say 我要喝水 wo yao he shui.

    • Interesting! Thanks for sharing. I guess in Malaysia there’s no sense of cold drinks being bad for your health, then? Although that’s a tradition I imagine wouldn’t last long in a tropical place. I’ve heard 冷水 used, but not by local mainland Chinese (although they still understand it). Also, a friend pointed out that 保温水 is often abbreviated to simply 温水.

  2. Tanya, actually the Chinese here also believe that cold water is bad for you and that warm water is better. My mum used to us not to drink too much cold water even on hot days. Can you imagine that the weather here is mostly hot throughout the year!

    • oh i can believe it – i’ve seen it! many of my chinese friends insist on drinking hot tea through the middle of summer – NEVER anything cold, especially the girls. (since girls are “ying” which is cold we have to pay more attention to not consuming cold things). i used to get lectures for drinking icy cold drinks, even when it was nearly 40 degrees outside.

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