Burning man

Last weekend I was doing a little bit of light 19th century French Lazarist reading when I stumbled upon this alarming passage on baijiu:

“One can hardly imagine what pleasure the Chinese find in imbibing these burning drinks, which are absolutely like liquid fire, and, moreover, very ill tasted. But many instances have been mentioned to us of their having died a fiery death for the sake of it; of men who have absorbed such a quantity of alcohol as to have become fairly saturated with it, and to have, in a manner, exhaled it at every pore. The slightest accident then, perhaps in merely lighting a pipe has been sufficient to envelope in flames and consume these wretched creatures.”

The author is quick to note that although he has never personally witnessed a human baijiu inferno, several reliably well informed sources have assured him that this phenomenon is “far from uncommon” in China.

My initial reaction was to unilaterally declare a state of shenanigans, but as my nervous laughter subsided I began to contemplate the horrible implications. From personal experience I am well acquainted with the insidious residual effects of a baijiu bender: the way it suffuses itself through your body, coming out through your sweat and your belches throughout the night and into the next morning. Had I unknowingly turned myself into a walking fire hazard? Are the smoky banquet halls around China just tender boxes waiting for the right spark? These questions need answers.

(Warning: The following discussion is going to get morbid fast.)

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) has long been theorized but never scientifically proved to exist. In most reported instances of SHC, the victim turns into a pile of cinders or a charred corpse for no discernable reason. Often there are no significant burns or scorch marks near the corpse, only grease marks on a nearby wall if anything. In some instances only the torso and head burn, while the hands and feet remain.

Spinal Tap on SHC (Note: I did not upload this video and do know how to spell drummer.) 

Some theories suggest that physiological reactions caused by static electricity or pyromaniacal enzymes are to blame, though they too remain unsupported by research. The particular theory of SHC that inspired this discussion – alcohol-induced immolation – was popular in the 19th century and appears in both the works of Dickens and Verne. No doubt this notion was known among the sources discussed in the case of baijiu conflagrations and it influenced their conclusion.

Given the lack of a verifiable scientific explanation that would explain a body’s natural ignition, the so-called “wick effect” theory of non-spontaneous human combustion (NSHC) has been put forward. The wick theory postulates that the clothed human body can act like an inside-out candle, where the clothes act as wick and body fat acts as the wax. When the wick (t-shirt, nightgown, whatever) is lit by an external source – almost always a cigarette – the body fat then catches fire, intermingles with the clothing and has a nice, slow roast at the combustee’s expense. Thus the fattier part of the body burns the most and the “candle” might burn itself out before reaching the extremities.

Of the two alternatives NSHC seems more plausible. It is particularly persuasive when coupled with the fact that in most cases of SHC the victim is someone who is at least partially immobilized, completely tanked or a chain smoker, and sometimes all of the above. Homicide is also often suspected.

So while I would not suggest that any of you start worrying whether that next ganbei is going to turn you into the human torch, I will say this: If you find yourself in a wheelchair or cast, don’t drink yourself unconscious while smoking. And if you absolutely must, do yourself a favor and drink naked.

For more on spontaneous human combustion, including an awesome graphic of the wick theory, visit: http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/unexplained-phenomena/shc1.htm.

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