The REAL Reason Chinese People Open Windows in Winter

I often ask (OK, complain to) my husband about the habits of Chinese people that I just don’t understand, and he always tries his best to explain the logic behind them (he’s Chinese, you see).  Sometimes I come away with more understanding, and sometimes I just end up more perplexed than I was before.

Long live the PRC!

One of the things that really gets to me here is the lack of heat.  People here seem to have something against being warm.  The building heat is government-controlled, so in my city it is turned on November 15 and turned off March 15, regardless of the weather.  The buildings have no insulation; they are basically just cement boxes.  And in my experience, it’s rare that anyone turns the heat on in their car.  Add to all this the fact that I am a natural ice cube, and it’s a wonder I survive here between November and April each year!

But the thing that drives me the craziest, the habit that makes me want to scream, the “cherry on top” is this:  they persist in opening the windows, even in the dead of winter.

And I’m not talking just a crack.  I mean full-on, flung open windows in February.

So I asked my husband one day, “Why?”  (Truthfully, it was much more colourfully-worded than that, but my mom reads this blog!)

He said the short explanation was that Chinese people believe that they need to “change” the air in a room or house, and that it is healthier.  I protested, “How can making me nearly freeze to death be healthy for me?”  He told me that it lets out the dirty air and allows fresh air to come in.

I guess there is some logic to this, and I conceded that if a room smelled stale or musty that I would probably crack a window too, but only a bit. I said I saw no need to fully open the windows for the duration of every day (I may have also mentioned that even when closed, my windows don’t fully “close” so it’s not as if my house or classroom is an impenetrable fortress or anything).

Then he brought out the phrase I hate hearing more than anything else (and if you’ve spent any time here, you know that most explanations of anything in China begin with this statement, so you know what’s coming).

“Well, you see, China has a very long history…” (ARGH!)

He went on to explain that long ago in China, people lived in small mud shacks, caves, and other such dwellings, and those places often smelled and needed to be aired out and thus, Chinese people developed this habit.  But, I countered, we don’t live in one, and many people in China don’t anymore either, so it’s an unnecessary habit for a lot of people.

He told me that Chinese people don’t like to change their ways (understatement of the century).  I pushed on, saying that China is like that in a lot more areas than this, and that if they want to be taken seriously on the world stage, they need to update their thinking and consider changing some of their outdated habits (Ed. Note: This is my opinion and you are free to have your own, but please don’t write me angry, lecturing comments about this – just enjoy the story!).

“But if China changes, then it will become like Russia and our country doesn’t want to end up like them,” he stated.  My mouth dropped open and I had no response.

So there you have it, the real reason Chinese people open windows in the winter:  it’s a matter of national stability.

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52 Responses to The REAL Reason Chinese People Open Windows in Winter

  1. MaryAnne says:

    I figured it had something to do with poorly ventilated housing from way deep in China’s Very Long History. I had no idea it was what stands between prosperity and post communist economic meltdown. I had to get my parents to bring thermal clothing from Mountain Equipment Co-op when they came over last week. I’m finally warm- got insulated leggings and shirts now!

    • kjsandor says:

      I had no idea that China teeters on the edge of instability with every window that remains closed in the winter either, until he schooled me on it!

      Our house isn’t too bad, since I keep the windows as closed as I can, but alas, yesterday my husband translated some notices pasted downstairs and it seems that several of our neighbours haven’t paid their heating bills to the zone, so they are threatening to turn it off – which I believe means for all of us. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen!

  2. Lennox says:

    Oh man, I wish people in Beijing acted like your peeps. Here, it is heat heat heat… Cars only seem to have two settings – freezing in summer, sauna in winter. This is in complete contrast to what you are wearing – of course I want superheat when I’m wearing a thick down coat! I find I have to open my apartment windows in winter to let the heat out because I’m on the 31st floor, so by the laws of physics it is a hothouse in here. The hotter the better it seems in Beijing – it is why the long ugly underwear goes on in September and doesn’t come off until April. My secretary has her heating on while I have my airconditioning on – it’s a constant battle :-)

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I will gladly take some of your Beijing, heat-crazy peeps and trade you some of my warmth-hating peeps. Just let me know the time and place for the switch!! ;)

  3. alexisbeland says:

    That is quite funny Mrs. Sandor. ;]

  4. Sara says:

    Oh, this is the reason! I have been thinking this a lot, but never got any answer. Have to go open my windows right now!

  5. Paul Tergeist says:

    the solution is… an air purifier!
    not that I think you’ll convince any chinese with it, but I like fresh air too, and it produces air cleaner than outside, for beijing standards at least.

    • kjsandor says:

      You’re right, no one will ever convince the Chinese people of it! I don’t really find the air that bad here (I live in a smaller city so not as much pollution as a big center like Beijing, although this is a steel city). Sure, it’s not as clean as Canada, or other places, but I don’t find that my house stinks and requires me to open the windows every day. As I said, it’s not as if it’s airtight anyway!
      I guess I’d rather put up with the “dirty” air inside and be warm, than let in the “clean” air from outside and freeze my butt off!!

  6. brittanyhite says:

    Finally—an explanation!
    This has always, always totally puzzled me. When I was working in Beijing, I was sooo miserable during the winter because my Chinese colleagues insisted on having the windows open all the time, even when it was below freezing outside. (And “fresh” air in Beijing? Pretty sure that doesn’t exist!) I actually eventually had to resort to wearing my coat, ski pants over my regular pants & a hat and gloves every day all day while at the office just to keep warm enough to function!

    So thanks for clearing up the mystery! Now let’s just see if it ever changes…

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for stopping by!
      I’m glad you enjoyed the explanation. I work in a school in an old building, where the hallways aren’t heated and the parents open the windows in the classrooms for us (how considerate!). I regularly go to school with 3 pairs of thick tights under my jeans, and at least 4 layers plus a wool sweater on top, plus boots. Sometimes I have to wear my coat as well – not exactly comfortable teaching attire – and I’m usually still cold. “Fresh air” doesn’t exist here either – it’s a steel town.
      I also think part of the reason is that most of these Chinese people have a couple layers of those really thick long underwear on (we lovingly refer to them as “Phase 3s”) and wool sweaters and somehow, they are actually too warm, so they open the windows to cool off. I’ve had to teach many students that perhaps a better solution would be to first unzip their coat, or push up their sleeves and see if that helps. Most of them look bewildered when I suggest this – they never stop to consider that not everyone is as hot as they are!
      Oh, and it will never change. Remember, China has a very long history… ;)

  7. Magnus says:

    Yes, this is classic China. I always loved teaching English in our freezing classrooms in Shanghai. Sometimes the students couldn’t understand what I said through the chattering of my teeth!!

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for reading!
      Here’s an interesting tidbit: Here in my city, the government schools went back a week earlier in the summer so they could take an extra week or so off for Spring Festival this year (their holiday is 40 days now) with the idea that it would be the coldest time of year and the schools could shut off the heating to save costs. Sort of smart, I think. MY school, however, is a private school and we are only given a week for holidays. What have they done for the rest of the time? Added EXTRA classes, so now I get to stand around in my cold cement box of a classroom for even more hours of the day in the coldest part of the year. How excited am I (answer: not very)!!

  8. ChinaMatt says:

    Yeah, it’s all about getting the fresh air in the apartment. Never understood that theory when our apartment was filled with plants and an air filter and the air outside was barely breathable from November to March. Letting the cold air in wasn’t that big a problem down south, I had a problem with opening the windows in summer.

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Up here, there’s a very limited number of days in the year when it’s worth it to open windows. Winter is too cold outside, summer is too hot, October is smoky from farmers burning fields, late spring there is no breeze to circulate the air anyway, etc. I’m starting to think they do it just to annoy the foreigners!!

  9. Joel Achatz says:

    I spent some time in areas of frigid temps and I had a friend from Hawaii – not Chinese – do the same when temps were -40′. Meanwhile, all the people who grew up in -40′ winters thought she was insane. She did it for the fresh air, and I have to admit the sharp, cool air was refreshing! That aside, this post is gold for your husband’s responses. “Well, China has a very long history…” and “If China changes, it will become like Russia.” hahaha. Great post. My jaw would have dropped hearing that too.

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      The cold air is certainly refreshing, but I’d rather not have my fingertips turn blue, thanks! ;)
      Yes, my husband’s comments are pretty fantastic – his English is quite good, but sometimes the words he chooses to use are comedy gold. He is actually the main reason I finally decided to start this blog, and trust me, there’s a lot more of him coming up. He’s really funny, though he’s also starting to realize it (hehe!). He looked over my shoulder one day and asked what I was doing, so I told him about this blog. Now every time he says or does something remotely funny, he points at me and says, “Write that down!”

  10. Isabelle says:

    “Well, China has a very long history…”

    Oh yes, I’ve heard that one many times. Including this day in Beijing when I used the electric kettle to boil water. There was still some water in it (boiled maybe one hour ago), and I just topped it up. The Chinese woman I was living with rushed to say I should never boil water twice, as this made the water super un-healthy. When I asked this woman (a Ph.D.) how boiling water twice could possibly spoil it, she just started –and ended– her explanation with: “Well, China has a very long history (of drinking tea, thus of boiling water…”. I knew then I had better let it go. :-)

    • kjsandor says:

      Oh my gosh, tell me about it! I know as soon as those words come out of his mouth that I’m in for quite a doozy of an explanation, and yet one that is impossible to argue against.
      By the way, I did ask my dear husband about YOUR story and he knew about this one too. Said his mom is pretty vigilant about it, and that she even says not to drink the soup from hot pot because of it. He thinks it has something to do about the salts and particulates left after one boils water and some escapes as steam, and how to do this over and over again would cause them to build up in the pot. Even HE seemed pretty unsure of this one! ;)

  11. Beijing CAT says:

    It is a really funny sory…

    In Winter, I prefer to close the window since Beijing is so cold to me, but obviously it is not the case to my Swedish girlfriend. I can’t stand the cold winter in Beijing… Maybe my swedish gf has a better system to handle winter in her body.. But I handle summer much better, since i am from the South of China.. so i think summer in beijing is not too bad…. But she needs to turn on the air-con when the temparture reach 25 degree……LOL

    • kjsandor says:

      I think you’re one of the first Chinese people I’ve ever met who admits being cold in the winter! So, thank you!!!

      I handle the summers pretty well here too – I’d much rather be too warm than too cold. But I have had a number of co-workers the last couple of years who start complaining about how hot it is and insisting we crank on the AC when the temperature hits about 20 C. I just shake my head and think, “Just wait until it hits 40 C – then what are you going to do?!”

  12. Kuan says:

    yea when i was in school, the headmaster told us the reason to keep the windows in the classroom open all the time in winter was to keep us awake and focused on lectures. apparently we’d be very likely to fall asleep in classes when it was warm. so just in case that happened, windows ought to be open all the time!!!!! and amazingly it did help. after i went to uni in england, most of the lecture halls were really heated up in winter and i found myself constantly fall asleep during lectures.
    so i think when i get older it’s very possible that i keep up this little habit or whatever u call it. open the windows when i need to stay awake and have them closed when i go to bed or take a nap (i don’t take naps so just when i go to bed)

    • kjsandor says:

      Haha! I do agree it keeps me more alert, to a point. But even with our windows closed, the heat isn’t that good. I’d like to retain all the heat I can!

      Thanks for reading!

  13. Odysseus says:

    I have the exact same complaint, um, I mean observation, about the open windows in the winter in Korea. I live in Seoul. Under no conditions does letting in the polluted outside air improve a room. Bleh! I’m always fighting against it, closing windows the instant the person who opened it has left or is not looking.

    • kjsandor says:

      I do that too! I walk to my classrooms in the school closing the hallway windows as I go – sometimes right behind parents who have just opened them! Seriously people, try unzipping your coat instead of freezing me out!!

      Thanks for reading, by the way!

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  15. Sasha says:

    I guess they have a valid reason then, not wanting to turn into Russia…I guess they always have their window’s shut in Russia!!!

  16. steve says:

    Our apartment complex has one heating control per building, which is always set at “Uncomforably Hot”. Once a fortnight a chap wandered round with a thermometer, officially told us it was too hot and suggested opening a window. Turning the temperature down isn’t an option apparently, probably something to do with a very long history of being too hot.
    It got so stuffy I was actually happier wearing a coat indoors and throwing the windows open, which felt like a terrible waste of electricity.

    • kjsandor says:

      Not sure how/why, but your comment ended up in my spam…but I saved it!!!

      Our apartment building might have a control, but I have no idea who decides what it’s set at. I know I can’t control our own house. If there is a setting, it’s permanently set to “Not Warm Enough”. In the old heating system, the water started at the top and flowed down to the bottom, so the lower you were, the cooler your water (we’re on the 4th of 6 floors). But they are now replacing that system with something where the water flows up from the bottom floor, I think, but then flows into the apartment in one place, around the entire house, and then out again. Still no individual controls and I doubt we’ll notice any difference in effectiveness. Needless to say, my windows stay shut (as shut as they can be) in winter to try to save every last drop of heat! Of course then I go to work and all of my efforts to stay warm go out the window…literally!!
      Yet, at my husband’s parent’s house in Inner Mongolia, I actually find it too warm when we visit at Spring Festival. I only wish we could bring the heat from their building down to ours!!

  17. юля says:

    I am originally from Russia, but I live in Canada right now, I am always cold in winter in summer, and I have allergies, and to me this sounds if you have allergies to things outside it’s only going to make your body more sick and have more symptoms, and then will have to spend more money on allergy medicine. Also been constantly in cold places if you hate cold, can cause all sorts of problems to your health. In our house in the winter its all heated so we cannot open windows other wise the heat bill will go way up, but in not so hot and not so cold weather some people open window constantly some days it is not good on my allergies, but at the moment me and my fiance live with his family so we can’t do anything about it. Also some of his family I think has allergies probably to something outside but they keep opening the window and having reaction some days. I think if I don’t mistake in China as I heard from a friend its very noisy where most people live and can hear lots of cars and stuff, and when some Asian people move to different country its too quite for them so they open windows for that reason as well, but I may be wrong.

    • kjsandor says:

      One thing I have noticed about Chinese people – once they get an idea in their heads that they should do something, nothing can convince them otherwise (not even freezing to death!).

      • юля says:

        Very true! There are some cultures once they get something in their head nothing can be done about it.

      • kjsandor says:

        Indeed! I might go so far as to say “stubborn!” (Now, of course, I can be stubborn in my own way too, so it goes both ways! ;) )

  18. tokyojimu says:

    The final insanity for me was the day it was snowing here in Chengdu, and most every shop and restaurant still had their doors wide open as I desperately searched the streets for someplace warm to have lunch. I did finally locate a Korean 饭馆 that not only had their doors shut, but had the heat on! I sat there for hours relishing the comfort I thought I would never find.

    When I would arrive home from school before my (host) family, I would close the windows in the living room, but then my host mother would get home and be horrified that all portals to the outside were not wide open and proceed to rectify that condition.

    I tried to point out that her idea of letting in the fresh air made no sense considering that the moment you walk outside you can smell the coal dust in the air, but it was useless. This was just one more Chinese truism that I could not fight, among others like drinking tea with your meal is bad for your stomach (tell that to every Chinese restaurant patron all over the world!).

    • kjsandor says:

      I agree that to me, it’s strange behaviour. They see it as perfectly logical though… so what can you do?! I just try to remember those freezing cold winter classes at times like these, in July, when it’s amazingly hot and humid…and I try to absorb as much of this heat as I can into my bones and store it for winter (does that work?!).

  19. Jack says:

    OMG! Kelly, I thought I am the only person in the world to be torture by this!!
    Take it from me. I am a Chinese and I cannot understand it myself as well.
    Growing up in South Island, New Zealand, the temperatures are often below zero (Celsius) and often I would wake up with my blanket cover in frost (I SHIT YOU NOT!) but it doesn’t matter to my mom one bit, she would still make sure every damn windows were open as wide as possible in the middle of winter!! I fought with my mom about this growing up (am I too westernize?!) but she still insist on opening every windows in the middle of winter til this day. “Its for ventilation, for good health!” – She would sometimes even open the damn doors too! I often joked she was probably indigenous people from Fiji in her previous life and reincarnated to be my mom to torture me… because Fijians live in huts that doesn’t have windows or doors or WALLS FOR THAT MATTER! (Would be prefect for her)

    But quite often, she would show me news articles about families that were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning (some family eating hot pot with windows close and using a gas heater…. or another family cooking with windows close) as if she is vindicated! “SEE! THESE PEOPLE DON’T OPEN WINDOWS AND THEY DIE! DO YOU WANT TO DIE?”

    • kjsandor says:

      I’m glad to hear that not all Chinese people want to open their windows all winter, Jack!! I do understand opening the windows sometimes (I’m sitting at home with all of them open right now, in fact, but it is only August and the temperature is pleasant). I just don’t understand why people want to let all the heat out of the rooms in the winter…especially when the heat isn’t very warm to begin with!!

      I’m happy to hear that you managed to survive! :)

  20. Jack says:

    Oh and the solution if you are freezing your balls off…. coming from my mom – “WEAR MORE CLOTHES!”

    She would never turn on the heater. Not even once. Even our house had a perfect fireplace, it was all for the show! The reason? Wearing extra layers of clothes is cheaper than turning on the heater!! If you ever wonder how immigrants save their money, now you know. We don’t turn on our heater EVER! EVEN IN WINTER! But in all honesty, I gotta thank my mom, after years of been almost frozen to death – now winter in Australia seems tame in comparison! I never felt cold ever again! (Until I go back to New Zealand I suppose).

    • kjsandor says:

      Too funny! Thank goodness I can decide at my own house whether or not to open the windows in the winter (I don’t). My bigger problem is at my workplace – I already dress in many layers of sweaters, but it’s really uncomfortable to teach in my down coat and gloves, so I want to be able to take those off (still wearing at least 4 layers of other clothes, by the way). But the parents open the windows in the classrooms, so I am still FREEZING!!! :(

  21. Jack says:

    What’s even more bewildering for me when I was growing up is when my mom ragging me for having the bed align to the door !! “BAD FENG SHUI !! MOVE YOUR BED NOW!” So I had to completely rearrange my room to the most illogical order just so my bed would fit and not pointed at the door. The reason? “Bed point at door leaks energy!” proclaim my beloved mom. “WHAT ABOUT THE GOD DAMN WINDOW MOM!!???”

    “Window not door. Move your bed now”

    • kjsandor says:

      My husband moves the mirror in our bedroom so it doesn’t point at the bed for this reason too. He tries to do it subtly so I won’t notice though! ;)

  22. M says:

    very nice article and interesting comments, but this is not related only to chinese people although european way has more logic – it’s recommended even in winter to:
    1. turn down heating in morning (in bedroom)
    2. open all windows to exchange air for fresh in few minutes, let’s say max. 20-30mins
    3. close windows and turn on heating, so it will be OK when you will come back from work

    • kjsandor says:

      Really? I’ve never spent time in Europe, so I didn’t know that. I could support this, as opening the windows for only a brief time would allow the fresh air in, but then the room would still be relatively warm most of the time because you would close them again. Here however, the windows are open all day long, and I can’t adjust my heat either. I comfort myself with the idea that in MY house I can do as I like, but I have to deal with others doing as they like when in THEIR homes or in the office. At least my house is warm! ;)

  23. Kathryn says:

    I am an American living in Korea and I deal with the exact same thing here. As a matter of fact, I am in school right now and Googled this topic because the cleaning lady just opened the windows in the bathroom (which has no doors and is next to my classroom.) I could ring her neck. There is no one in the school now except for me and the office staff because the kids are on winter break. I am doing everything I can to stay warm in this old school as the hallways and bathrooms are not heated, and she comes along and opens the windows. Just as in China, the doors to the stores are wide open, as well as the hall windows in the apartment buildings. These people are friggin’ nuts. That’s all I can say. They are out of their minds. Their ignorance just infuriates me. If they are worried about germs, why don’t they teach kids to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom? While they are at it, maybe they could teach the adults that you are supposed to use soap as well. I know I am not being kind, but I am just so miserable. The fact that children have to wear their coats all day long in school is absurd. The fact that I have to sit here with gloves on just to keep my fingers nimble enough to type is completely ridiculous. I am moving to warm Okinawa in two months. I simply cannot abide by this insanity.

    p.s. This goes right along with the fan death syndrome that hits Korea every summer. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, it was publicized that you can die if you are in a closed room with a fan blowing on you all night. Every summer the urban legend circulates again. Unbelievable. Of course, the way they are taught to NOT question their superiors, maybe it’s not that unbelievable at all.

    • kjsandor says:

      I do feel your pain, since I dislike being cold and don’t understand the appeal of freezing my tail off while indoors. To me, one of the basic tenets of a “building”, whether it be a house or office or whatever, is that it should protect one from the elements (ie. the temperature should be more comfortable than outdoors).

      That being said, I also know that I am not going to change their behaviour in any way. I might be able to convince my husband to let me keep the windows closed in our house, and I might even be able to convince my Chinese co-teacher to close them in the classroom while I’m there, but it will never catch on any further than that. I think the idea persists because it’s cheaper to buy clothes and wear more clothes than it is to pay for heat (which, at least in China, was probably a huge luxury up until quite recently). It’s what they are used to, and change comes slowly here.

      Also, if your school’s bathrooms are anything like ours, you should maybe be glad the windows are open so you don’t have to smell them quite so much!

      And is that what “fan death” is? I heard it mentioned somewhere, but never bothered to look into it. I hear some people thinking similarly here, in that you shouldn’t sleep with the A/C on during the summer, as it can cause all sorts of maladies (because the cold air gets into your body and you don’t have enough fire, and yadda yadda – all the lovely Chinese medical beliefs).

      Anyway, all we can do is layer up as best we can – and enjoy the summer heat when it comes!! :)

  24. Song says:

    I am from canada. Me and my friend open window in winter too…At least for awhile everyday. My friend told me she saw it somewhere that we are supposed to open the window twice a day, at least 30mins each time regardless of seasons for ventilation purpose. Anyway, you wont die whether you choose to open or not so I guess it is just a matter of preference.

    • kjsandor says:

      People here say they need to let in “fresh air” – but given the oppressive smog we’ve been dealing with, I don’t think the air outside is any fresher than what is inside as well. And my personal preference is to retain what little heat I have in my house, so I don’t open the windows until it is warm outside. ;)

  25. xinfenzhen says:

    It has to do with the way rooms are heated in the old days, By burning coal directly inside the house. If you don’t open the windows, you’ll die by Carbon Monoxide poisoning. My family in China did this up to mid 90s before they moved to new building with central heating. There are lots of article are caution about opening windows and how not doing so will cost lives, and people really take it heart. And the tradition stayed, even for most case the heat doesn’t contain Carbon Monoxide.

    • kjsandor says:

      I’m sure this is the reason – if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that Chinese people hate change. But let’s face it, it isn’t necessary and is actually quite wasteful (allowing the heat to escape). Someone (myself or my boss, depending on where it is) has paid for this heating and now that money is going right out the window…literally. Also, this concept of “fresh air” is a joke in today’s China – even my husband refuses to open the windows these days because the polluted air outside is likely to be several times worse for our health than any stuffy air that is inside.

      • xingfenzhen says:

        well, Carbon Monoxide poisoning (as well as explosions) still happen in China (to a lesser extend Eastern United States.), so it’s still very real treat. My grandama used to open windows during winter as well. My mom finally convinced her to close the windows by buying 3 Carbon Monoxide and hydrocarbon detectors and placed them all around the house. After some arguments and reasoning, she finally agreed to close the windows.

        Btw, fresh air does not mean non-polluted air in case, it means to let methane and carbon monoxide (煤气) get out, and fresh air (新鲜空气, in this case normal air) get in. There was a pretty health campaign in the from the 70s to the 90s against gas poisoning ( 煤气中毒) and gas explosion (煤气爆炸), and the solution offered was opening the windows once in awhile.

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