What makes a person fat? The Chinese have a simple 4-part answer:

The charm of the answer lies in the fact that each of the four “causes” is pronounced in basically the same way, written “tang” in pinyin. Each one has a different tone, though, which makes it fun. When Chinese people hear the answer they have to think for a second, running through their mental dictionaries, matching up the proper tones to the four corresponding concepts.

Charming answers are all well and good, but to a Westerner, two of the four make no sense at all. Let me give you a run-down.

糖 means “sugar.” This idea has been around for quite a while. Eating sweets will make you fat. Nothing strange here.

躺 means “lie down.” Again, it comes as no surprise the assertion that inactivity leads to weight gain.

汤 means “soup.” This one I don’t get. Eating soup will make you fat?? I always thought that the high proportion of water in soup would cause you to fill up on liquid if you ate a lot of it, and water isn’t going to make you fat. This answer goes contrary to that. I talked to some Chinese people who agreed that eating soup does, indeed, cause one to gain weight. I’m kinda baffled.

烫 means “hot.” The idea is that eating hot food will cause you to put on weight. This just seems utterly ridiculous. Sure, heat can denature proteins in food, but come on! Again, I found some Chinese friends who agreed with this viewpoint. I’m mystified.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I think the four words answer to “what makes people comfortable (or 爽)?” I heard people say this when I was back in China this summer. This will make sense of everything.

  2. Like you, i don’t agree and the last two tang. I find that drinking soup fills me up quickly. I tend to eat less.
    There’s nothing wrong with hot food. Does it mean that people who don’t want to become fat should let the food cool down before eating? That’s ridiculous.

  3. John, with the latest posts using lots of Chinese pinyin and characters, even busting out jokes in Chinese, it is clear that you are as comfortable and clear with your Chinese skills and language acquisition as ever. Keep it up, dude. Even though most people will continue talking to me as if I need to translate the Chinese into English for you, you’re my translator in China. =)

  4. There is a famous doctor-I can’t remember his name- who wrote about the soup. He wrote that when eating Chinese food the soup is almost never taken first. If it were it would be good but because it is not it only stretches the stomach. So normally soup is great but when taken with a normal dinner for the normal course it is not.

  5. I wish my English were normal.

  6. Oh, I don’t agree with the last two charecters too. And I don’t think “烫” makes a person “爽”…
    I’m a Chinese! I just asked some of my friends, and they said never heard about it. I’m confused now…

  7. Lior Wehrli Says: September 29, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    John, You shouldn’t take those chinese word games to litterally. I have the feeling that Chinese just like to sort thing into categories of four or five in a manner that is lingualistically interesting. It’s the same with this other saying that devides china into four “taste regions”: north – salty, south – sweet, west – sour, eat – spicy. Does that make sense? Not really. I’ve tried to figure it out with my wife and have come to the conclusion that does saying are just saying that all cildrens memorize but no one actually questions. Btw: In what way does metall produce water?

    I think the chinese just love symbolic descriptions much more then westeners do.

  8. Lior Wehrli,

    Oh, I’ll take them literally. I do that.

    I also think “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” is at least 33.3% bunk, but that’s something I thought about at least 10 years ago. I’m in China now, absorbing the culture.

    Note, though, that taking a saying literally and taking a saying seriously are two different things. 🙂

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: September 29, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    The only thing I agree with is the second: if you lie on your ass all day, you’ll wind up with a fat ass. However, I don’t believe “sugars” will make you necessarily fat. They’re just simple carbs, and if you limit your intake of them, you’ll be okay. “Soup” is interesting. I guess there are really rich soups you should avoid, and “hot” even more bizarre! I guess the idea of “tang” causing fat overall is weird–but not any weirder than all those Americans eating low-carb but fat-laden dishes due to the low-carb craze.

  10. I agree that it’s mostly just a saying for the word game value. I don’t believe in the last two either, but a rationale might be that fatty, rich soups (now think French Onion Soup, Russian Soup, or 人参燕窝汤) wouldn’t be good and that eating spicy soup before or with or after the course and eating hot stimulates the digestive system and promotes large intake and also helps digestion of fat somehow. Greasy meats especially pork is less obviously greasy when hot.

    Southern Chinese are more likely than northerners to take the soup first. Though I spent part of my youth in a northern village during the cultural revolution, a dirt poor place in a dirt poor period, where I kid you not the peasants always served their guests two, three big bowls of soupy noodle first before one bowl of lao-mian was presented as “main course” of the day. Nobody got fat, how healthy!

  11. WT_Ning: The reason you’ve never heard it is because you haven’t gone back recently. I was in China this summer and had heard this from people on two different occasions.

  12. interesting. i always thought tang was an orange drink. good to see your site back up, John! hey… one quick question.. what do i need to do to be able to view the Chineese script in your blog??

  13. Soups make you fat especially if you put rice in your soup. Try it. It will fill you up and stay in your stomach longer. Chinese people usually finish their soup last so they are not overdrinking it.

  14. Actually I wonder if the fourth character means not hot but in this case is a noun referring to the hotpot way of eating, Ma-La-Tang (麻辣烫), which got to be quite popular a few years ago. This is a healthy and tasty dish except it suits well with group dining and you always end up eating more than you should. It is the intake amount that is bad.

  15. Lior Wehrli’s comment about the groups of four and five struck a chord with me, because I read an article recently in the Cankao Xiaoxi about the significance of the number three in American culture. I hadn’t realized it, but we do a lot of things in threes that other countries might not necessarily think is so normal. Maybe I’ll translate it sometime…

  16. “In what way does metall produce water?” Lior Whehrli ridiculed.

    While it might have been placed there farfetchedly to make the loop, a case can be made that metal articles indeed will have water condensed on it, easier than on wood or earth. The five elements concept was invented in the bronze age when the wealthy and educated used bronze bowls, cups, vases, and even mirrors. Imagine this. A bronze container containing water sits in the courtyard overnight, and condenses large amount of water on the outer surface and even causes a pool to form underneath. Our scholar stares at this for a long time, every morning, and finally figures out correctly that it was not seeped from the inside but rather “formed” on the metal surface virginally from air. Of course, air was not a matter then (absent from the 5 elements, it was a nonexistence). Wow, metal produces water from nowhere. He presents the discovery to the king, who orders a huge bronze sculpture built in his own courtyard, that of a tall, beautiful goddess holding up a lotus-shaped, shallow plate (承露盘) which collects the purest water (露水) from heaven (aka, 天水,天露). Note that the shallow plate design was decided upon after experiments failed with deeper ones. Our scholar gets a truckload of jade for his commission and two truckloads of sorghum for bonus, along with a title of Mister Wisdom. Mr. Wiz trades in the jade for bamboo slips on which to write his books and the story goes on and on.

  17. Micah, do you have any examples of things he says we (assuming american) like in threes?

  18. Guangdong people drink soup before (especially in restaurants) and sometimes after a meal and I’d say they are some of the smallest people in China. So that soup story is bunk…

    As for the low carb diet, I went on it and lost 20kg; I went from 95kg to 75kg now. The X-factor that is rarely mentioned is EXERCISE. Eating low carb AND exercising is the best way to lose weight IMHO.

  19. I ask my taiwanese friend about soup and she mentioned something I hadn’t thought, which is the oil that is added to soup. Oil is incredibly calorie dense and not very filling so I think it makes soup have a lot more calories than it looks.

  20. HOT FOODS MAKE YOU FAT? Well, I’m not a good example (buddha belly on me) because I love hot food from Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese (does wasabi and spicy tuna count?), Vietnamese, cultural foods. But this is pretty factual. Hot foods increases your body temperature thus increasing burned energy/calories. See that sweat on my brim when I eat the carne asada burrito drenched in red hot salsa and a fatty green jalapeno in the middle of it all? Yeah, that’s sweat and that’s my body’s reaction to hot food.

    However, eating too much hot food and developing a resistance to it means that your stomach develops a lot of acid to compensate and your stomach will feel hungry (wo de du zi e), thus increasing your appetite. Same concept for the coffee drinkers.

  21. Wilson,

    Wrong hot. We’re talking heat-wise, not spice-wise.

  22. Anonymous Says: October 5, 2004 at 9:00 am

    three bears, three wishes, three chances, nine lives

  23. My good friend always told me to remember the 4 tang when you are sick… eat soup, rest, take hot hot showers (hydrotherapy) to get rid of a fever, and the sugar, i cant recall the beneficial funtion of sugar in chinese medicine..

  24. BeL, that would make sense, for illness. Sugar is pure calorie (not a Chinese medicine), so you take it for energy when you have no appetite. Should you completely lose the ability to eat, like in a coma, they’d give you a glucose solution by IV or tubefeeding. Ouch!

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