LENG BU LENG? A Guide to Seasonal Small Talk

Article by Tim King

Whether you’re an old zhongguotong (中国通, “China hand”) or a newbie taking your putonghua skills on the road, someone’s inevitably going to ask you, “Are you cold?” (Ni leng bu leng?, 你冷不冷?) Are you wearing comparatively little clothing? Ni leng bu leng? Are you so bundled up that you can’t put your arms down? Ni leng bu leng? In honor of this millennia-old custom, let’s take a look at what “cold” really means in Chinese, and then expand your Chinese vocabulary with some snappy replies.


The obsession with cold may stem from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). To talk about that, we need to go all the way back to the Eastern Han Dynasty in the 2nd Century AD, the times in which seminal Chinese physician Zhang Zhongjing lived. He is credited with writing a book called A Treatise on Cold Injury (Shang Han Lun, 伤寒论), a summation of both his own findings throughout his career and of medical texts available at the time but are now lost to history. As he explains in the book’s introduction, this era was plagued by disease and disorder and Zhang himself lost two-thirds of his family members to illness, prompting him to record this knowledge in an attempt to save his people and future generations. His work is considered a critical event for TCM, and is still required reading today (though there is some disagreement between practitioners about whether it should be followed to the letter or updated with new knowledge).

Though Zhang’s methods are never really explained in A Treatise of Cold Injury, it does break causes of illness into three broad factors: external (environmental), internal and neither; of these classifications, there are six, known as “the Six Divisions,” which themselves are interpreted through various forms of “yin” (characterized by cold and wetness) and “yang” (characterized by warmth and dryness).

Outside of that, TCM often bases itself on the so-called “Six Excesses,” which are comprised of Wind (fēng, 风), Fire or Heat (huǒ, 火), Dampness (shī, 湿), Dryness (zào, 燥), Summerheat (shǔ, 暑) and, of course, Cold (hán, 寒). Modern practitioners may sometimes shy away from believing in the Six Excesses as the be-all-end-all of causes of disease, recognizing that illness can occur uninfluenced by these factors. However, that does not mean that a correlation between exposure to the Excesses and falling ill is not drawn by many others.

This information is all sort of a roundabout way to say that, when someone asks if you’re cold, they’re above all just concerned for your health. So try to be nice about it.


When in doubt, just agree that you’re cold. They’ll then probably tell you that “you should wear more clothes” (Nǐ yīng gāi duō chuān diǎn yīfú, 你应该多穿点衣服), and you can just say “okay” (hǎo de, 好的). End of conversation. Perfect for people unsure of their Chinese-speaking abilities or for those who’re having this conversation for the thousandth time and just want it to end.

If you’re strong of constitution, or just a jerkass contrarian who refuses to admit that they’re chilled to the bone, you can just pop off with a quick “I’M NOT COLD!” Impressed by your resilience to the elements, they might tell you that you’re “厉害” (lì hài, awesome, but comes with a possible implication that you’re scary or fierce like a wild animal). Or, who knows, they might just double down and tell you to wear more clothes.

Pinyin: Wǒ shǐ dōng běi rén
Translation: I’m from the northeast

China’s Dongbei region, comprised of the provinces between Liaoning Province and Heilongjiang Province, is nationally famous for its frigid lows. While Shaanxi does get chilly, it’s not snot-frozen-to-your-upper-lip cold like Harbin and its neighboring cities are. The “that’s not a knife, this is a knife” of talking about cold, why not do a really cool thing and imply to the friendly local that they don’t know what real cold is?

Pinyin: Wǒ shǐ chāo rén
Translation: I’m Superman

While we’re making fantastical claims about who we are, maybe you should just go for the gusto and say you’re the Man (or Woman) of Steel. You’ll either get a chuckle or a confused look, while assuring your conversation partner that, no, they’re not crazy; you’d have to be a superhuman or an alien to not be cold right now.

Pinyin: Fǎn zhèng bīng tiān xuě dì wǒ yě bùpà           Translation: Anyway, I am not afraid of ice and snow

That’s right, this is the Chinese translation of “The cold never bothered me anyway,” the final line of the chorus of the mega-hit pop song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Quoting Elsa is a firm way to show people that you’re completely unfazed by the weather, and a shot at the dark at starting a spontaneous sing-along that’s sure to make memories that will last a lifetime.

Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease Magazine and is neither cold nor afraid of the ice and snow because he’s a Superman from Dongbei.
He can be reached at tim.king@xianease.com