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Damp is Like Feces?

Theory Diagnosis

A patient once told me that, for years, she had avoided eating soup or moist foods such as warm applesauce and fruit because her acupuncturist had warned her against Damp.

Her acupuncturist had told her, with a straight face, “You are too Damp: you need to avoid Damp food.” 

Soup and moist foods would have been perfect for her. They literally are damp foods: foods containing moisture, healthy foods. Moist foods were just what she needed.

Remember, damp foods, foodsfull of moisture, are good for us.The acupuncturist should never have used the code word Damp when what she meant was “greasy, rich, and heavy.

”Most of what we learn is code, and does not translate into anything conversational in either English or Chinese. A Chinese speaker has no more idea of what “damp food” is than does an English speaker. “Damp” is a medical-code word.

For English speakers, the code is all the more befuddling because of some very poor translations. Happily, some words such as Yin, Yang, and Qi just stayed in their Chinese form. But some words, such as “Damp”, were translated into English incorrectly. 

The Chinese word that we translate as “Damp” is Shi (flat tone). It’s pronounced like a cross between shuh and shih. 

This word, Shi, that some English speaker decided to politely translate as “Damp” doesn’t mean damp. It means “clammy” or “sticky” in the sense of “humidity”. The word Shi also means excrement, which is often clammy or sticky. If Shi is prefaced with the Chinese words meaning hot or cold, it can also mean diarrhea.

Remember, this translation into English was made back in an era when even the word “perspiration” was not acceptable in polite or mixed company, let alone “sweat”or, God forbid, “bowel movement.”

My beloved professor, Dr. Jeffery Pang, used to say, “Shi: it’s easy to remember this word. It’s just like your own English word” (and here he grinned and assumed a really deep-voice, southern drawl pronunciation): “shi-i-i-i-i-t”.

And then threw back his head and laughed.

We never understood, in all our years, how often Dr. Pang was just making jokes in order to help us remember stuff. 

That Dr. Pang was making up these jokes and phrases for us in English, which he was still struggling with, attests to his depth of understanding, his extreme intelligence and flexibility of mind.


We students had no idea. We dutifully wrote in our notebooks “Damp is like feces”. 

We had no idea what this obscure, mystical phrase meant. We could only hope we would be told in some other class, maybe by an native English speaker. We never were, of course.

Back in the earliest days of translating Chinese medicine into English, the Chinese code word Shi in its meanings of both clammy and excrement was gently mistranslated into the word “Damp”. The mistranslation continues in present-day usage. 

This mistranslation makes for much confusion. For example, we are taught in Chinese medical school: “Damp is always bad.”

This makes no sense, in English. We think of the sweet morning mist as damp. When a child falls asleep in our arms and his skin breaks out in a tender, moist, dampness, it is endearing.

In The Battle Hymn of the Republic we sing, “We have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp.” 

We love the gentle damp, the clean, refreshing damp.

I was deeply frustrated with the idea that Damp was necessarily a bad thing. But my teacher insisted: Damp is always bad.

What we students took away from this, incorrectly, was that, for some reason, moisture is bad for your health. 

Years later, I learned of this mistranslation from an intern. Fang Cai was brilliant in English and Chinese. She was born in China. She came to the U.S. when she was nine years old. Her father was a Chinese academic, so she retained and increased her Chinese language skills even as her English waxed poetic. 

I sing her praises: she mastered English so quickly after coming to the states that she was accepted at Swarth more College, one of the most selective colleges in the U.S., and one that places large emphasis on English language skills.

I mention this to give credit where credit is due, and also because so many people have said to me, “Where do you learn this stuff?” I learn this “stuff” from so many wonderful, sharing people. 

After graduating from college, Fang (pronounced Fong) got a Master’s degree in Chinese medicine. 

While interning with me for a summer, she mentioned, casually, “Damp is the wrong translation.” 

I asked her what the correct word would have been. By way of reply, she made herself comfortable, fixed me with a glittering eye, and delivered the following:

“Imagine you are driving for hours in the winter. It’s been raining and cold all day. The heater in your car is broken.

“Now it’s night-time. You’re driving on back roads. You might be lost. It’s still drizzling. You are cold, worried.

“You finally give up on driving any farther. You look for a motel to stop for the night. You find one. You pull into the parking lot. 

“The small motel is seedy looking, and you’re the only car in the lot. You get a room key from a sullen clerk. You go into your room. It’s cold. You can tell no one has been in that room for weeks. Still, you are tired so you get into bed and as you slide between the sheets, they feel...clammy: Shi.

Fang continued, “In medical school, you always see “Shi” translated into English as Damp. That’s a wrong translation. Shi means clammy. Shi also means loose stools. Shi does not mean damp.” 

Hot clammy situations can use the code word Damp as well as cold ones.

 When it’s hot and humid,your sweat won’t evaporate. Your sweaty clothes and your sweaty hair stick to your skin. Your skin feels clammy. If the humidity is too high, your thinking becomes muddled or your mood gets irritable. Your vitality might seem like it’s being sucked out ofyour body. 

Hot and clammy is very similar to cold and clammy. They are both always conditions of too much disorganized moisture. They are both always bad for humans.

Clammy, or “disorganized or sluggish movement as opposed to flow” is possibly a better translation of the code word Damp as used in traditional Chinese medicine. “Damp” in Chinese has even more specialized meanings if combined with the words Hot, Cold, or Lower Jiao, aka Lower Burner (gut). 

So don’t be confused when your teacher tells you that Damp is always bad. What he means is “Any situation that causes slowing or disorganized flow of channel Qi, that makes it hard for the Qi in the channels to flow linearly, including disorganization that stems from high humidity, whether cold or hot, is always bad: it’s always hard on the human system.Loose or runny stools are a digestive reflection of this channel Qi disorganization. 

You will find Damp combined with other code words: Cold and Damp, Damp Heat, Heat-and-Damp, and Spleen Damp. These terms usually have nothing to do with climatic dampness. And in Chinese medical code, which is different from Chinese language, Shi (Damp) only means loose stools when combined with the code words “in the Lower Jiao”.

And this is a convenient place to drive home the point about word order: Damp Heat is different from Heat and Damp. Word order is sometimes significant. You probably suspected as much. After all, it’s code. It’s not words:not language.

Currents gone awry

The reason “Damp/Clammy” is always bad has to do with –surprise –channels. Disorganized water molecules found in situations of high humidity with no clear directional force have an electrical affect on the channel Qi flowing just under the skin. 

Going briefly back to the general subject of channel Qi flow, be aware that, if the largest, just-under-the-skin currents fall into disarray, all the smaller, subsidiary currents in the body can fall into disarray as well. Happily, the organs, the cellular structures and DNA, and the electromagnetic signals of a well-balanced mind and heart all provide steadying ballast for the currents. This ballast helps the currents, the flow in the channels, stay somewhat organized and flow mostly in their correct patterns even when temporarily challenged by pathogens, injury, or bad weather.

The tiny electromagnetic stimulations created by the movement of charged water molecules close to the skin have an influence on the currents that run just under the skin. Happily, your body is able to counteract these charges if the moisture is moving in a somewhat organized fashion.

But moisture can be a particularly disruptive influence, especially if it involves erratic movement of charged particles, such as the billions of randomly moving water molecules that you get with high humidity.

For example, if you are walking into a driving rain, your body is able to detect the direction of the wind and rain and vigorously counter the electromagnetic forces that are coming at you. In this way, your basic energy system can remain stable even when confronted with what would otherwise be a destabilizing electromagnetic field.

Your body may need to summon up some extra energy from the universe to do this, and this extra energy you pull in might bring color to your cheeks and brighten your eyes, as well as keeping the channels flowing correctly in defiance of the weather.

No harm comes to a healthy person from walking a few miles in a driving rain. 

Returning to the problem of Damp: what happens if the moisture has no clearly detectable direction? In the miasma of a heavy fog, the tiny water droplets are swirling around chaotically. If you’ve ever been in a deep fog, you know how tiny droplets can be moving up, sideways, down, all at the same time.

There is no way for your body to figure out a compensating pattern. As your body keeps trying to figure out how to keep the main channels, just under the skin, flowing correctly, while under this relentless attack of unorganized water molecules, you quickly become tired, your mental confidence can begin to lag. 

Your body starts telling you, “I’m not sure what we’re doing here. Can we get out of this mess?” 

Cold clammy sheets behave the same way as a fog. As you climb into the sheets, the water molecules are unorganized, randomly sticking to the sheets, and then to your skin, and then to the sheets again. Your body behaves as if billions of tiny magnets are pulling back and forth on your skin. You feel bad, unsettled. Your energy is sapped as you exert an enormous amount of reserves to keep your channels moving in the correct flow patterns while simultaneously having to exert extra energy to stay warm. 

In hot, humid weather, the same type of attack can occur. Randomly moving water molecules exert undue influence on the body’s electrical circuits.

The humidity in oppressive, hot air moves all around with no organized sense of direction. Just like with the clammy sheets, the humid air on a day with no breeze and high pressure can attack the skin like billions of magnets that keep attaching and pulling off again. It’s exhausting. 

Clammy, humid weather is always hard on humans. 

Healthy damp weather, as we understand damp in English, can be refreshing: when the cool ocean breeze rolls in after a day of heat, the moist air flowing in a clear direction off of the water and over the land is delightful. In English, damp can be very, very good. 

The translators were utterly incorrect when they used the polite word Damp instead of the more accurate words Clammy, Sticky,or Humid. 

Other forms of gunk in the body ranging from pus to mucus are also poor-conductors or are non-conductive. This means that channel Qi cannot flow easily, if at all, through these gloppy accumulations. The channel Qi, trying to move through these substances, loses its sense offlow. Therefore, these things are also “Damp.”

Your Chinese teachers cannot correct this mistranslation because when they look in their Chinese-English medical dictionary, they see that “Damp” is the officially approved translation for “Shi”. Your English-speaking teachers cannot correct the error because they never knew the correct translation. We are stuck with Damp.

The following may help further your understanding of the dangers of Damp/Clammy.

Damp and world politics

Dr. Tuan Anh Nguyen, a highly respected Vietnamese MD and herbalist in his native country, now living in Pennsylvania and practicing acupuncture, shared the following bit of history with me.

For two thousand years, the Chinese wanted to take over Vietnam. Repeated attempts were made. But the Chinese soldiers were never able to vanquish the mountain people who live in the highlands separating Vietnam from the mainland of China.

The highly trained armies of the various Emperors were never able to make a lasting conquest of the simple people of the high hill country. In the hot, humid mountain jungles of northern Vietnam, the skilled, vigorous Chinese soldiers would become lethargic, enfeebled, and lose focus. 

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the Chinese military undertook a study of what enabled the Vietnamese hill people to stay strong and nimble despite the muggy, debilitating climate. 

Here is what they discovered: the native diet of the hill people features Yi Yi Ren, a grain that’s a form of oversized barley, a grain similar in many ways to oats. The hill people boil the Yi Yi Ren in the belly of a pig for a long time. 

The resulting stew made of grain and pig belly combined is extremely nourishing. Almost excessively so. This type of food would be overly cloying to a person living in a dryer climate. 

Thousands of years ago the mountain people had figured out that this combo, stew made of oat-like Yi Yi Ren boiled a long time in the belly of a pig, was what they needed to remain healthy and hearty despite the extremely humid conditions. 

When the Chinese military figured this out, they fed their soldiers Yi Yi Ren boiled in pig belly.

The Chinese army then marched easily through the mountains and, in short version conquered the residents of the Vietnamese border, and converted the north of the country to communism under the very noses of the French imperialist rulers of Vietnam. After about seven years of half-hearted resistance, the French bailed. The U.S. waged a war against the communists and lost. The rest is widely known history. 

The crucial and obscure bit of history that Tuan shared with me hinged on the issue of Damp. 

I was spellbound as Tuan told me this story. As soon as he finished, I blurted out, “That’s exactly like Hadrian’s Wall! The southern border of Scotland!”

He had never heard of Hadrian’s Wall. Well, I had never heard of the mountains of northern Vietnam, so we were all square there. 

I settled in and cleared my throat:

More than two thousand years ago, the Romans had expanded their boundaries across the “known world,” meaning most of Europe, the Mideast, and northern Africa. But there was one bit of the known world they simply could not conquer: the area now known as Scotland, just north of England. 

After more than a hundred years of trying to vanquish the doughty Celts, the Romans in the time of Emperor Hadrian made the sulky announcement that they didn’t really want the northern lands anyway. 

Then, to keep the marauding Celts away from their well-supplied Roman forts, they built a tall stone wall that spanned Britannia, as it was then called, from east to west. Portions of the wall still stand. The wall extended in an almost straight line from the east coast of northern England to the west coast: from the town now known as Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth, just west of the town now known as Carlisle. 

The climate of Scotland is very cold and clammy, with freezing sleet and swirling deep fogs. 

Here’s the snapper:

The national dish of Scotland is haggis: oatmeal boiled in the belly of a sheep. The oatmeal and belly meat is eaten together, just as it is in northern Vietnam. 

As I explained about haggis, Dr. Nguyen’s eyes were dancing. We savoured the parallels: in both cases, the native people were kept strong by their diet of oatmeal or Yi Yi Ren, herbs with similar nutritional qualities that famously counteract “Damp” (humidity), fortified with belly meat, a tissue with somewhat uniquenutritive qualities, no doubtdue to the special needs of stomach tissue to resist the corrosive effects of stomach acid. 

In both cases the similar, and rather unusual, diets gave their channel Qi the ability to withstand the pull of humidity, the pull of the“Damp” of their environment. In both cases, the humidity had kept these simple mountain people safe from powerful, sophisticated armies for thousands of years. Their diet allowed them to thrive despite the “Damp,” despite the humidity.

Damp in the context of a patient’s constitution

A patient being described as excessively Damp might have a tendency to accumulate stagnant fluids, clusters of phlegm, fat, clusters of inflammation, orpus, or any other situation in which fluids or even electrons do not flow cleanly and purposefully thought the system –just like high humidity in conditions of little air movement.

This situation might occur in response to allergies, poor digestion, poor diet, lack of exercise, mental stress, and many other possibilities. 

If it helps you to think of these patients as having excessive Damp, meaning the above, fine. You can use the word to stay in the “Pattern” system, the highly codified system we use to quickly match a patient’s symptoms with one-size-fits-all treatments for that particular Pattern.But don’t tell a patient that he has Damp, or that he is“too Damp.” 

It makes no sense in English.

Damp food

Getting back to the opening of this article, some acupuncturists tell their patients that certain foods are Damp. This is just perpetuating a mistranslation. What acupuncturists should say is, “Certain foods create sluggish, heavy conditions in the body.”

 Do not tell your patient that ice cream and fried foods are Damp. Please.

Say that they are rich. Say that they are greasy. You can certainly say that they cause digestive sluggishness. You might add that rich and greasy foods can cause the digestive tract and various organs to perform poorly or even incorrectly. This poor digestion might, in turn, cause a build-up of stagnant fluids or poorly moving electrical circuitry (channel Qi) in the body. 

When talking to your patient, keep it in English. The word Damp is a very wrong translation.

In summing up, when your training directs you to the word “Damp,” think “clammy” “humid,” and “chaotic electron/molecular movement.” When talking to a patient, use the words sluggish or bloated. For foods, say greasy, rich, and heavy. 

I hope this saves you from some bafflement. While I was in school, I would have greatly appreciated knowing that mistranslations abound and that it was OK to mistrust what I was hearing in class. For example, my teacher’s words implied that moisture was bad for humans. That made no sense. 

If a statement doesn’t make sense or contradicts what you know to be true, don’t be afraid to question it. You may well have been handed the wrong statement. 

Be of good cheer: when you know what the code words actually mean, both you and your patient are empowered to work on healing in a way that makes sense, as well as being highly effective. 


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