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Seats,Squats,and Leaves:A Brief Histry of Chinese Toilets
Source:Sixth ToneTime:2018/2/28 19:33:20

Seats,Squats,and Leaves:A Brief Histry of Chinese Toilets

Whydoes the nation squat,and not sit,when using the jhon?

A few years ago, I wasstanding with an American friend in a Shanghai office building, waiting for ameeting to start. Suddenly, my friend turned to me with a worried expression onher face and asked if the bathrooms had “Western” lavatories or “Chinese” ones,the latter referring to the squat toilets found in most of the country’sbathrooms. When I replied that I didn’t know, she furrowed her brow even moredeeply. “I have squatting phobia,” she said.

Going to the toilet in Chinacan be a grueling experience. Besides the lack of toilet paper, overpoweringodors, and the somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward personal privacy, theneed to squat instead of sit frequently poses a challenge to foreign visitorshurrying to answer the call of nature.

It’s a question that’s puzzledmany outsiders over the years: Why do many Chinese people squat on their heelswhen they go to the toilet, while people from other countries, especiallyWestern ones, perch atop a toilet bowl?

It is likely that the mostprimitive form of a toilet was nothing more than a hole dug into the ground,over which people would squat. In China, the character ce,which today appears in the word for “toilet,” has existed for at least 2,000years. However, in many regions in ancient China, this character also meant“pigsty,” and with good reason: Toilets in these regions would be built next topigpens, and human waste would slide down a tunnel into the sty for the pigs toeat. This practice can still be seen in certain parts of rural China today.

A grey pottery ‘pigsty’ fromthe Han dynasty during an exhibition in Haikou, Hainan province, Jan. 30, 2011.The middle and left parts are pigpens, while the right part is a toilet. PengTong/VCG


When the Chinese beganintegrating toilets into their homes, northerners usually opted for the squatvariety. North China suffers from frequent water shortages, so squat toilets were useful for storingnight soil, which would then be used to fertilize crops.

South of the Yangtze River,however, sitting toilets were more common. Most took the form of a crudely dugpit with a wooden bench placed over the top. A hole in the board allowed peopleto conduct their business, though in many places the bench was little more thana wooden plank or thick branch upon which people were precipitously perched.

North China suffers fromfrequent water shortages, so squat toilets were useful for storing night soil,which would then be used to fertilize crops.                              

- Dai Wangyun, Ph.D. student

In cities, too, toilet habitswere rather different. Most traditional residences in southern cities lackedseparate bathrooms, and residents usually sat on a large, water-filled woodenbucket known as a matong, or “horse bucket” — a term that is still used to referto a lavatory bowl today. Every morning, residents would empty the contents ofthe matonginto public restrooms and scrub the bucket clean with a bamboo brush in anearby river. Families often included a matong as part of their daughter’sdowries; after all, going to the toilet is part and parcel of everyday life.

Pit toilets and wooden matongwere widely used in China as recently as the early 1990s. Even today, pittoilets in many rural areas in the north have yet to be replaced by flushingtoilets, largely due to unresolved water scarcity issues.

Flushing toilets only appearedin China in the second half of the 19th century and were initially used byresidents of colonial treaty ports, where foreign-run municipal authoritiesinstalled gas-lit public bathrooms with running water. However, these projectswere restricted to the country’s foreign concessions, and did not catch onamong the wider Chinese populace.

There were two reasons forthis. First, Chinese cities were key links in the supply chain for the manureindustry: Night soil collectors would collect human waste from public toiletsand sell it to farmers in the countryside, who then would spread it on theircrops. In addition, modern flushing toilets rely on extensive sewage systems,which were a rarity in China at that time.

Left: A wooden bucket known as a‘matong’ is seen in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 7, 2007. VCG; right: A squattoilet. Moment/VCG.

It wasn’t until the mid-20thcentury that the government began exercising its administrative authority overtoilets. In 1943, the Kuomintang government announced a plan to build publicrestrooms across areas under its control and began to penalize those whourinated or defecated in public spaces. From the outset, public sanitation wasbound up with the idea of creating a modern nation-state, alongside otherconcepts such as modern health care, physical education, and even resistingforeign imperialism.

After the Communist Partyreunified China in 1949, the provision of public sanitation was further spurredon by the Patriotic Health Campaign — an initiative which stillcontinues today, albeit under a different moniker: the National Hygienic CitiesCampaign. Growing up in the 1980s in a small city in eastern China’s Zhejiangprovince, I regularly saw public toilets that were little more than pits in theground being converted into sparkling, white ceramic flush toilets.

“The ghastly state of some publicrestrooms means that some people, especially women, insist on perching on topof the seat when using sitting toilets.”

- Dai Wangyun, Ph.D. student

In the ’80s, most publictoilets took the form of a long trench with squatting spots separated by anumber of low partitions. A large water tank hung at one end of the trench, andwhen people flushed away their bathroom contents, they washed away everyoneelse’s too. These kinds of trench-style bathrooms are still used in certainplaces today, especially in old bus and train stations, and other areas wherehigh numbers of people tend to congregate.

Today, a majority of publictoilets in China — both in the north and in the south — are squat toilets. Thisis mainly because squatting toilets cost less to build and maintain than seatedones. Squatting toilets are also considered more hygienic: Not only do theyminimize bodily contact with the pan, they also prevent unhealthy practices ina country with only partial awareness of good sanitary practices. Many Chinese areunaccustomed to flushing after using the bathroom, while others do notproactively clean up after themselves. The ghastly state of some publicrestrooms means that some people, especially women, insist on perching on topof the seat when using sitting toilets.

China’s so-called toiletrevolution will eventually flush out the country’s remaining substandardlavatories, but the provision of public toilets remains patchy. Generally,squat toilets are a fixture of China’s countryside, while sitting toilets aregenerally seen in urban areas. Unfortunately, this rural-urban divide means that the latter kind are frequentlymisused. After all, if someone grows up in a rural village where there are onlysquat toilets, how can you expect them to instinctively know how to use asitting toilet once they move to the city?

Translator:Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh. 

(Headerimage: Patrick Kovarik/VCG)