Seats, Squats, and Leaves: A Brief History of Chinese Toilets
A few years ago, I was standing with an American friend in a Shanghai office building, waiting for a meeting to start. Suddenly, my friend turned to me with a worried expression on her 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’s bathrooms. When I replied that I didn’t know, she furrowed her brow even more deeply. “I have squatting phobia,” she said.
Going to the toilet in China can be a grueling experience. Besides the lack of toilet paper, overpowering odors, and the somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward personal privacy, the need to squat instead of sit frequently poses a challenge to foreign visitors hurrying to answer the call of nature.
It’s a question that’s puzzled many outsiders over the years: Why do many Chinese people squat on their heels when they go to the toilet, while people from other countries, especially Western ones, perch atop a toilet bowl?
It is likely that the most primitive 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 2,000 years. However, in many regions in ancient China, this character also meant “pigsty,” and with good reason: Toilets in these regions would be built next to pigpens, and human waste would slide down a tunnel into the sty for the pigs to eat. This practice can still be seen in certain parts of rural China today.
When the Chinese began integrating toilets into their homes, northerners usually opted for the squat variety. North China suffers from frequent water shortages, so squat toilets were useful for storing night 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 dug pit with a wooden bench placed over the top. A hole in the board allowed people to conduct their business, though in many places the bench was little more than a wooden plank or thick branch upon which people were precipitously perched.
In cities, too, toilet habits were rather different. Most traditional residences in southern cities lacked separate bathrooms, and residents usually sat on a large, water-filled wooden bucket known as a matong, or “horse bucket” — a term that is still used to refer to a lavatory bowl today. Every morning, residents would empty the contents of the matong into public restrooms and scrub the bucket clean with a bamboo brush in a nearby river. Families often included a matong as part of their daughter’s dowries; after all, going to the toilet is part and parcel of everyday life.
Pit toilets and wooden matong were widely used in China as recently as the early 1990s. Even today, pit toilets in many rural areas in the north have yet to be replaced by flushing toilets, largely due to unresolved water scarcity issues.
Flushing toilets only appeared in China in the second half of the 19th century and were initially used by residents of colonial treaty ports, where foreign-run municipal authorities installed gas-lit public bathrooms with running water. However, these projects were restricted to the country’s foreign concessions, and did not catch on among the wider Chinese populace.
There were two reasons for this. First, Chinese cities were key links in the supply chain for the manure industry: Night soil collectors would collect human waste from public toilets and sell it to farmers in the countryside, who then would spread it on their crops. In addition, modern flushing toilets rely on extensive sewage systems, which were a rarity in China at that time.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the government began exercising its administrative authority over toilets. In 1943, the Kuomintang government announced a plan to build public restrooms across areas under its control and began to penalize those who urinated or defecated in public spaces. From the outset, public sanitation was bound up with the idea of creating a modern nation-state, alongside other concepts such as modern health care, physical education, and even resisting foreign imperialism.
After the Communist Party reunified China in 1949, the provision of public sanitation was further spurred on by the Patriotic Health Campaign — an initiative which still continues today, albeit under a different moniker: the National Hygienic Cities Campaign. Growing up in the 1980s in a small city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, I regularly saw public toilets that were little more than pits in the ground being converted into sparkling, white ceramic flush toilets.
In the ’80s, most public toilets took the form of a long trench with squatting spots separated by a number of low partitions. A large water tank hung at one end of the trench, and when people flushed away their bathroom contents, they washed away everyone else’s too. These kinds of trench-style bathrooms are still used in certain places today, especially in old bus and train stations, and other areas where high numbers of people tend to congregate.
Today, a majority of public toilets in China — both in the north and in the south — are squat toilets. This is mainly because squatting toilets cost less to build and maintain than seated ones. Squatting toilets are also considered more hygienic: Not only do they minimize bodily contact with the pan, they also prevent unhealthy practices in a country with only partial awareness of good sanitary practices. Many Chinese are unaccustomed to flushing after using the bathroom, while others do not proactively clean up after themselves. The ghastly state of some public restrooms means that some people, especially women, insist on perching on top of the seat when using sitting toilets.
China’s so-called toilet revolution will eventually flush out the country’s remaining substandard lavatories, but the provision of public toilets remains patchy. Generally, squat toilets are a fixture of China’s countryside, while sitting toilets are generally seen in urban areas. Unfortunately, this rural-urban divide means that the latter kind are frequently misused. After all, if someone grows up in a rural village where there are only squat toilets, how can you expect them to instinctively know how to use a sitting toilet once they move to the city?
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Patrick Kovarik/VCG)