A Royal Flush: Exploring the Paradoxes of China’s Toilet Culture

A Royal Flush: Exploring the Paradoxes of China’s Toilet Culture
Oct 06, 2012 By eChinacities.com

The Three T's is a rule that Western journalists have been working to for some time here in China– subjects to stay away from: Tiananman, Tibet, Taiwan. But recently a BBC radio reporter discovered that there was a surprising fourth T to add to that list if he wanted to continue working in China: Toilets. All he'd wanted to do was follow up on the amusing story of the Two Flies rule—a citywide ordinance that was implemented last may stipulating that public restrooms in Beijing can have no more than two flies in them at a time—but the official he was interviewing was adamant that he could not report on this topic. Seems the government can accept criticism about certain trade policies or social conditions, but they will not face anything that might cause them embarrassment. So, the new informal rule is apparently The Four T's…

Fresh off the plane, an unanticipated introduction to China's toilet culture

Although it's easy to argue that those officials were simply inviting embarrassment when they came up with that ridiculously named rule (and its equally absurd logic), it does seem like "toilet trash-talk" comes up surprisingly often in casual discussions on China. To be certain, bad public restrooms still abound here. Looking at tourist info websites, this is often one of the main warnings for travelers: Chinese toilets are often very smelly and dirty and normally have no toilet paper.Then, to top it off, you are expected to squat rather than sit…yet Westerners traveling to other Asian countries or Africa, for example, don't seem to complain half so much about this. Maybe the problem is really one more of expectations than anything else? After all, so much of China (even in the heart of big cities) is still decidedly Third World.

Perhaps I too am guilty of such high-placed expectations. The memory of entering the less-than-hygienic public restroom in Nanjing's main bus station for the first time when I came to China over ten years ago is with me still, vivid as ever. The "introduction" wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't gotten a direct full frontal look of some guy squatting down doing his business over the open trough quite near the door as I walked in. The shocking (and unexpected) glimpse of frighteningly white thigh and dropped trousers was nearly too much for me; it took all of my self-control not to turn tail and run.

In defense of the squat toilet

What about facts, can they reassure us at all? Some are quite surprising, such as, that the Chinese almost certainly invented both the first flush toilet and the first toilet paper. As if that isn't astounding enough, there is also the notion that squat toilets might actually be more hygienic than sitting-style ones—because people's precious nether regions don't actually come into contact with the porcelain in a squatter, disease can't be transmitted so easily. Add to this studies suggesting that the squat toilet promotes better posture, less stress on organs in the digestive system as well as increased flexibility, and it's beginning to look like squatting isn't such a bad idea after all—it's just one that us clumsy Westerners are not used to.

Meanwhile, that so many squatters don't have doors is probably due to the Cultural Revolution, when the idea that any public space could have a private corner was frowned on as a sign of bourgeois decadence. Historically of course, having privacy for such bodily functions was not so important for Chinese either. Even today, China's military latrines are often built on the communal principle.

Archaic plumbing and China's "brown" gold

Plumbing is another matter entirely. It seems that China's used the same design for these things since practically time immemorial, completely oblivious to "modern" advances like the S-bend shaped pipe (1775), which retains a small amount of water after use, creating a seal to prevent sewer gases from sneaking back up into the building. Having lived in several different apartments in China in the last decade, plumbing problems no longer surprise me. In fact, a lack of such problems would be the real surprise. If you are told to refrain from putting used paper down the bowl, you better believe it.

Design of public restroom facilities is something else again. One of the odder facts about China is that it has always been short of manure, likely having something to do with the proportion of farm animals to land area and the fact that people in the past didn't generally eat much meat, milk or cheese. So, human waste was kept and used instead. Again, from personal experience, I know this still happens. At least some of the smaller public toilets in the backstreets of Wuxi where I lived until recently still had troughs under the squatters and plastic pails in the urinals – all to catch that valuable waste. Practical? Yes, but with rather a negative influence on both the smell and look of such places (and all too often with a lot more than two flies, although I can't say I ever counted).

Toilet humor and paradox of Chinese personal hygiene

Speaking of Chinese toilets, one of the most unintentionally funny things I've ever read was in The Diary of Azuma Shiro (a supposed atonement by a WWII Japanese soldier for the unspeakable treatment meted out to the Chinese) where mid-apology the writer can't stop himself criticizing the locals: for their clothes, their houses, their badly built wells and…their toilets. "We needed to construct a toilet in every location we stopped in," he remembers disgustedly, before going on to describe the technique necessary to get a good clean cut with a sword through a human neck. Even the Chinese have jokes about their own public loos: "If you need a bathroom, just follow your nose," goes one side-splitting quip. And here's the real paradox: the Chinese are undoubtedly some of the cleanest of all people as far as personal hygiene goes. I know this for an incontrovertible fact—I married one.

Sometime before marrying, my wife was doing a residential course in a Nanjing university. She shared a typical dorm room with six other girls. When I visited the room one weekend, one thing that puzzled me was the stack of brightly-colored washing up bowls in one corner—there must have been about twenty of them. "Are you going to open a hardware shop?" I joked gamely. "Of course not," my future wife answered with a seriously straight face, "They are for washing." Later she explained that each girl had three bowls: one for the upper body, one for the feet, and one for the parts in between. And when I went to stay with people out in the sticks, I found this was still quite common—even when a house had a seemingly serviceable sink or shower area. These people are clean. At home, that is. Outside, there are all the unhygienic problems we China expats know and love so well.

International criticisms and an encounter with the "toilet of the future"

The WTO thinks so too. No, not that WTO, the other one: the World Toilet Organization (www.worldtoilet.org). On several occasions, the WTO have issued no-nonsense criticism of China, actually claiming (whether you care to believe it or not) that the country has the worst public loos in all Asia. Criticism really hit the fan when China made its bid for the 2000 Olympics—one major reason it narrowly lost the Games to Sydney was due to the quality of public restroom facilities in Beijing. Since then, things have improved markedly. The Chinese government itself has said: "Clean public toilets are the symbol of a civilized society".

And perhaps there can be no greater irony than that provided by my wife's rich cousin in Shanghai. Some time ago we were invited for a weekend visit to her new flat. It was spacious, well-lit and rather sterile feeling in a white-tile-and-chrome-trim way. The most amazing thing was the toilet. Like so many of the rising Chinese middle-class today, she'd invested in a state-of-the-art WC. When I went into the bathroom and walked up to the toilet bowl, the cover lifted as if by an invisible hand (of God?) and soft muzak started playing from somewhere. Then I looked (fearfully) down into the bowl and was astounded to see the watery depths were illuminated! It was quite unnerving to pee into this. When I finished and edged away looking for a flushing handle, the damned device beat me to it. I'm sure it used the environmentally-friendly minimum of water, and I bet there were other fancy tricks that it could do as well (hot and cold bidets, anyone?). There was a hi-tech looking control box on the wall nearby, but the only thing printed on it which struck me was the phrase Made in Japan.

I'm sure Azuma Shiro and the WTO would have approved.

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Keywords: China toilet culture China squat toilet China public bathrooms China personal hygiene

14 Comments

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1

Renee
comment|32580|82820

Ummm...Ok. I am married to a Chinese, too. Except, I am married to a Chinese man. I must say ; they are some of the most "bacteria ridden" people. I didnt notice this until after I had a baby with him. I was constantly hounding him and his family to wash their hands after they use the WC (even poopy, thed come out all proud and grab a biscuit to give my daughter). It has nearly caused us divorce. If I had to do it all over again (being married to a Chinese), I prolby wouldnt. The cleanliness factor with a small child is a constant stress.

Oct 16, 2012 02:01 Report Abuse

2

foreign
comment|32434|59072

I never use the public toilets, I stick to my bathrooms at my condo

Oct 10, 2012 22:18 Report Abuse

3

Mia
comment|32429|53034

Despite fastidiously following cultural edicts regarding cleaning oneself - washing your feet all the damn time, for example - I don't see anything remarkable about the cleanliness of a great many Chinese people. Greasy hair, fuzzy teeth, clogged pores that can result in terrible acne far past the appropriate age, clothes that couldn't possibly have been washed since they wore them yesterday... these are things observed by many, many visitors to China, not all of whom orginate from the same culture. While there are many clean Chinese people as well, I wouldn't say there is anything remarkable about their level of hygiene.

I would also say there is NOTHING hygienic about using the same water in a dingy plastic bin to wash everything from your neck to your ankles. it is borderline insulting to hold Chinese people to such a different standard than the rest of the world.

Oct 10, 2012 21:05 Report Abuse

4

Andy
comment|32346|102175

One thing I've noticed when I've taught in China is the abundance of toilet humour...even if the East and West do not share the same toilets, we certainly share the same love to snigger at the prospect of what on earth happens in them...

Or is that just me...

Oct 08, 2012 19:20 Report Abuse

5

Alex
comment|32319|49793

Have look at the latest news from India..the Government has said that all schools have to have toilets and clean drinking water...40% don't
I've never been to India, but the stories don't sound so good for one's health

Oct 07, 2012 18:13 Report Abuse

6

Kate
comment|32302|65209

I work in a Chinese office of around 100 people, and I am the only woman I have ever seen washing my hands with soap after using the bathroom. That Chinese are "some of the cleanest of all people as far as personal hygiene goes" is ridiculous.

Although a lot of Westerners are put off by the unfamiliar squat toilets, I don't think they are the problem. In fact, when I lived in Taipei I came to agree with everything this article says about squatting being more hygenic, etc. But that's because the bathrooms there weren't all completely filthy and disgusting...

Oct 07, 2012 07:40 Report Abuse

7

Chaps
comment|32291|100891

I think you have nailed it on the head. Entering a women's toilet is a whole other experience and you described it very well. Just to add to that, I also found myself getting pushed aside by other women in a "queue" for a toilet. I couldnt quite bring myself to push back at older women just to get in first (consequently, I never actually got to use the toilet). There is a definite "everyone's out for themselves" feel about this place sometimes.

Oct 07, 2012 00:14 Report Abuse

8

Alex
comment|32284|49793

"Is" would be correct because there is only one rule applied to the "Ts"..that is "Don't Talk" is the unwritten and probably written rule. Therefore "is", is refering to the rule (singular) if "are" is used, then rule would be "Rules" (plural)... So you can see, there is only one rule applied to the T's , not any other rules are applied... in context with this story "is" refers to "don't talk"!

Oct 06, 2012 21:25 Report Abuse

9

Alex
comment|32333|49793

You asked for help to explain it, have a think about using "they" in singular form... My friend said the world is square, they don't understand it is round!
What do you think now? Crimo?
What about "was and were" how do use this?
Sorry if you can't keep up, but english grammar can be difficult especially when you use it formally and informally!

Oct 08, 2012 03:00 Report Abuse

10

Alex
comment|32334|49793

Sorry I made a bad grammar mistake
was and were ....how do you use it

Oct 08, 2012 03:03 Report Abuse

11

Alex
comment|32388|49793

Okay Bornok, I made a mistake, but you can't edit your replies on this forum. All I was trying to say is that "was and were" are similar when you use them to "is and are". I wasn't ripping anyone off at all about their use of words
English, and for that matter, all languages change with time!!
Maybe you should clean your WC!

Oct 10, 2012 00:40 Report Abuse

12

meggychen
comment|32360|105018

"The Three T's" is originally from "The Three T-s/es". There are 3 T's, that's why the writer adds "-s". It's like "There are three apples" (Simple Present Tense form, if you had it in your primary school). We add "-s" since it's plural. But since it's an initial, we don't write "T-es" or "T-s", we put an apostrophe then the S letter ('s) instead.

Oct 09, 2012 02:24 Report Abuse

13

bornok
comment|32375|71567

This is about the fourth T, or the four Ts, not the syntax issues. Can I add one more T? Truth...truth hurts.

Oct 09, 2012 17:20 Report Abuse

14

tauney
comment|32348|72146

Hey! I encountered one of those concrete rooms one day, as well. Yuck! The "trench" in mine was only two inches deep, there was no running water, and it's a damned good thing I didn't have to poo.

And as for hygiene, I agree. Some people are squeaky clean. Others, even those who can afford to wear clean clothes and wash regularly, don't.

And another, weirder fact: a lot of Chinese women won't bathe during their menstrual period, because Chinese medicine and folklore says it's bad for their health. So, when you see Chinese girls wandering around with greasy hair for a week, that's why!

Oct 08, 2012 19:26 Report Abuse