On a hot summer day with the scorching sun beating down on necks and backs, an ice-cold drink sounds perfect. But for many Chinese warm water is always preferred, no matter the weather.
There are a number of reasons why the Chinese want to drink water that has been through the boiler. Historically, drinking hot water was one of the ways of trying to stay warm through winter. But in warmer seasons, the simplest answer is that it helps to clean out bacteria (SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes the novel coronavirus, dies after being heated for 15 minutes at 90°C, French scientists believe).
The boiling of drinking water was heavily promoted during the 1930s, when the Kuomintang government launched the New Life Movement, issuing guidelines on different aspects of everyday life. Boiled water was recommended as a way of avoiding diseases such as dysentery and when the Communist Party took over in the 1950s the practice was encouraged again. Mao Zedong and other senior leaders were often photographed holding mugs of hot water, creating demand for enamel mugs.
What is keeping the practice alive today is China’s relatively poor water quality, which leads many people to assume that drinking directly from the tap isn’t a good idea.
Even in major cities like Shanghai, the tap water can be high in chlorine because the city’s water sources are polluted by sewage and other contaminants (the Yangtze River Delta is dotted with industrial hubs). Boiling the water in this case helps to remove the chemical and its pungent taste.
Another reason for the preference stems from the teachings in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which suggest that drinking warm water helps to balance the yin and yang of the human body, as well as promoting better circulation and detoxification of the blood.
Cold drinks tend to be viewed more suspiciously by TCM devotees and are even warned against as recipes for illnesses.
There is no hard evidence to support TCM claims of the health benefits of imbibing boiled water (over clean cold water). But the belief has created commercial opportunities for brands looking to target local health-conscious shoppers.
Jinmailang, a food and beverage company from Xingtai in Hebei province, raked in Rmb2 billion ($290 million) in sales last year from its Liangbaikai brand of bottled water, according to a news report on NetEase. What sets it apart: the water is boiled before it’s bottled.
China’s bottled water market is expected to reach Rmb244 billion insales by 2023, up from Rmb183 billion in 2018, data from Euromonitor, a London-based research firm, predicts.
The expansion is partly fuelled by rising demand for premium offerings such as Perrier and San Pellegrino, whose sales have surged 30% each year since 2014, Jiemian reports. Increasing demand convinced another Italian brand, Acqua Panna, to join the fray in May.
Brands like these won’t be competing with Liangbaikai, which has been priced at the lower-end of the market, with a product that strikes a chord with a particular type of consumer.
But it isn’t alone in going after this ‘boiling’ market: Taiwanese food firm Want Want launched its own bottled boiled water brand last year, followed by Master Kong, China’s largest instant noodle producer, which did the same thing three months ago.
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