Stump the Laowai: shànghuǒ 上火

Another episode in a series about tough words to translate into English (and dictionary deficiencies).

Judging from the great success of the previous episode (just LOOK at the fruits of our labor!), I’m confident this student will not have suffered in vain (see what fun the Chinese could have if they too had a future perfect tense!).

Inspirational Story

A student suddenly started choking in my class. So I stopped everything and pointed straight at the poor girl and said, “Are you ok?” No, of course I didn’t say that. Why would I put my student’s well-being above a teachable moment? I pointed at her and asked the class, “How do you say that in English?”

Before I get sued for negligence or abuse or excessive pointing let me just say she was fine withing a few seconds. It was just a matter of a little kǒushuǐ 口水 going down the wrong guǎnzi 管子, or so I thought.

I wrote “choke” on the board. Then, as typically happens, a blizzard of Chinese sprang forth as the students debated and “bu shi” bashed each other over which hanzi to write next to the English word in their notes. I just stood in awe for a few seconds and then asked directly how to say it in Chinese.

Qiàng , yē , and even késou 咳嗽 each had advocates until the choking girl herself raised her hands and silenced the masses and then did sit down and spake to the multitude saying:

“Shànghuǒ 上火.”

An “Ooohhhh” rose up from the crowd and the debate was finished.

New Definition Needed

An irresponsibly literal translation of those two characters yields, “on fire.” But look at the definitions in the dictionaries (click the icons):

shànghuǒ 上火

You’ll see that they both disappointingly have “get angry” as the only definition. However, the sentence examples in nciku start to approach what we want.

I’m constantly asked, “Teacher how to say in English, ‘I don’t like fried dumplings because they will make you shànghuǒ’?” I’m sure they’re not talking about jiaozi rage. It’s some sort of Chinese medical philosophy thing that I don’t know how to translate well. In a pinch, I usually go with, “Just say ‘will give you a sore throat’.” But now that I’ve seen shànghuǒ induce choking, I’m having to re-think my advice.

Any suggestions for a better translation of shànghuǒ 上火?

35 Replies to “Stump the Laowai: shànghuǒ 上火”

  1. A brief introduction of traditional chinese medical theory may help you understand the meaning of “shanghuo”.

    The Chinese views the world as a something originated from and combined by “yin” and “yang”, the former meaning (not exactly though) feminine and the latter masculine.

    This yin-yang philosophy can find its application in the medical field, which is, as a doctor holds, when someone coughs a lot, bleeds, turns on a red face because of illness, has a fever, urinates yellow urine etc, then he or she is “shanghuo”ing or having an internal heat and needs to “jianghuo” or to put out the internal heat. Triggers of this heat or fever include spicy food, fried food, anger etc.Because of this theory, people are suggested not to maintain a peaceful mind for anger is believed to be a very big trigger of heat inside one’s body.

    A godd health, Chinese doctors believe, means a harmony or good balance of Yin and Yang in your body.

  2. Sorry!

    wrong: people are suggested not to maintain a peaceful mind.

    correct:people are suggested to maintain a peaceful mind

  3. 上火 is not an effect, but the cause of many things. She was choking because of 上火; I don’t think anyone would say the action of choking would be called 上火. At least I’ve never heard it like that. The effects of 上火 are often canker sores in the mouth, pimples, rashes, and the like.

    The best translation of 上火 that I can think of is “yang imbalance”. As Tom was discussing above, = .

    The remedy for 上火 that I usually hear about is 去火 (qùhuǒ).

    I think the most common example of 上火 in China now is in advertisements for the ice tea drink 王老吉 (wánglǎojí).

  4. Randy more or less said what I was going to say, but I’ll add that you probably won’t find a good literal translation for 上火, or even a good dynamic equivalent. It’s a Chinese medical term that is so far outside the English world conceptually-speaking you’ll end up needing a translation for your translation. I can’t think of anything better than Randy’s suggestion.

    We hear 上火 and 去火 regularly from our Chinese friends, and i finally went and looked into it a bit by trying fire cups and guasha and reading The Web That Has No Weaver. Interesting, but takes some effort.

  5. Tom,
    Thanks for the very detailed explanation!

    I think you’re right. I think shanghuo was meant to be the cause of the choking rather than the word for the action of choking. The amazing thing was that ended the debate as if everyone had been disagreeing on the cause all along!

    Cool article. Thanks for the link. I’m going to run out right now and buy as much “duck, goose, bamboo shoot, all shellfish” as I can. I can’t wait to eat “poisoning” foods!

    Since the goal is to bolster the dictionary’s definition, what do ya’ll think about:

    “to get angry / to have a yang imbalance causing internal heat / heartburn”

    as the new definition.

    Does “heartburn” belong in there?

  6. On nciku, if you click on the “Comprehensive Dictionary” section, the definition there already includes this:

    [Chinese medicine] suffer from excessive internal heat (with such symptoms as constipation, conjunctivitis and inflammation of the nasal and oral cavities)

  7. never heard of the association with heartburn, or getting angry.

    But I’ve heard that term used a lot, but only in two ways: “I can’t eat that because 我上火” (people always feeling they need to 去火) or when talking about or getting guasha or fire-cupped — they would look at the colour of the marks on the skin and declare that you have some sort of problem.

  8. forgot to mention, the “heat” we’re talking about here isn’t the same thing as body temperature, or having a temperature/running a fever. If you just say heat in the definition and don’t qualify it, it might be misleading.

  9. When you eat some food and these will cause your body have too much energy, for exmaple, if some people eat too much Chocolate, Motten, sesami jam, peanut butter,alcohol etc. his /her face will get some acnes. that means “shang huo” in your body.


  10. Joel’s right. IMO, the thing about “heaty” food isn’t about thermal temperature, or an overabundance of chili: It means a food which will increase the relative amount of yang () in the body. Lychees? Go figure…

    On a side note, I’m delighted to note that beer is listed in the “cooling” foods 🙂

  11. Hi, Albert,

    “…The amazing thing was that ended the debate as if everyone had been disagreeing on the cause all along!…”

    上火 is indeed the cause of certain symptoms, however when the symptoms are so obvious, such as lip blister or choking etc, we normally answer like this, “我上火了” instead of telling others what they have actually already noticed. I think this has confused you. You actually only want to know what this action – choking is called in chinese, right?

  12. I just wanna figure it out from an English version of TCM dictionary. We use it a lot, but just don’t know how to explain it in a way that Westerners can understand. I guess it’s related to Wu Xing “五行” of the TCM philosophy. Sometimes we say “internal heat” caused by eating too much rich food or too much stress.

  13. Julia,
    You’re right, I was only looking for the action in Chinese but there was no escaping “shanghuo,” so I thought I’d bring it up here. But you’re right, cause and effect are separate. This may be one situation where the Chinese are shying away from stating the obvious!

    Julie (this is kind of fun),
    The link seems to be broken. I’d like to see what you wrote if possible.

    I’m going to submit the following to MDBG as the new definition:

    “to get angry / to have a yang imbalance causing excessive internal heat”

    “heartburn” has been removed. I don’t think a list of symptoms needs to be in there, right?

  14. I’ve always assumed 上火 could be translated as “choleric”, which would confuse both the Chinese and Laowai in the room. It seems to relate to the 4 humors of Hippocrates that were incorporated into Medieval medicine. For example, yellow bile is related to the gall bladder, the “temper” is “choleric” and the nature is “warm dry”.

    Note this translation from Taming of the Shrew I found on the internet:

    GRUMIO. I cannot tell; I fear ’tis choleric. What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?

    Choleric people have “a lot of ambition, energy, and passion” and “can dominate people of other temperaments, especially phlegmatic types.” The other four humors could possibly align with the other Chinese elements of water, earth or metal.

  15. i am curious, as i have studied chinese medicine a while ago. i understand the concept of balance, however is this related to “熱氣?” I also find it interesting that i have not seen an actual recognition from my chinese medicine books, they focus more on the balance of the yin and yang of the 5 elements.

    just curious

  16. Stephen, 上火 and 热气 (simplified chinese)are the same thing, as far as i know, but 热气 is more regional, for example Guangdong province uses the term 热气 more, but someone from another province may not be familiar with this term, but 上火 is more widely used throughout the nation.

    it is interesting that you have not seen actual recognition of this from Chinese medicine books. i have been wondering if there is some chemical or somehow other physical difference between foods that are hot, cool, or neutral? what do you think?

  17. The translation is “not balanced”. The chinese belive a healthy body is a balanced body and too much fire in your body causes an imbalance. Hence when you try and translate you get the thing to do with fire

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