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Will Public Urination and Spitting Fade Away With Other Traditions in China?

TAIZHOU, China- I bought a drink at a cafe in a mall and moved to take a seat in the single booth that was provided for customers. There were two women already sitting there, but it’s OK to crash someone’s table here when no others are available. But I stopped short: One of the women was [...]

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TAIZHOU, China- I bought a drink at a cafe in a mall and moved to take a seat in the single booth that was provided for customers. There were two women already sitting there, but it’s OK to crash someone’s table here when no others are available. But I stopped short:

One of the women was clipping her fingernails over the table. Fingernails pieces were flying here and there as she clipped and chatted away. She worked on her manicure with completely self-assurance, glancing up at me for a moment before returning to her grooming, as though people shed their unwanted body parts on public eating surfaces all the time.

I wasn’t disgusted, just amused. I took my seat at the booth, rested my elbows where the clippings were just wiped away from, drank my coffee, and thought of other things.

man-pees-from-bus-xiamenGive me the cultures that make me say “What the f#ck?” as these are the societies that I stand to learn something in. It’s only too bad that these cultures are disappearing fast. There is something called world culture now — a symptom of the rising middle class, globalized way of life — that is turning just about all societies into carbon copies of each other. I’d rather spend my time in places where men piss in the streets and women clip their fingernails on cafe tables than in the lock step of a culture that has declared itself modernized.

Though I don’t recall ever watching someone clip their fingernails on a cafe table here in China before, this type of behavior isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, bathroom activities being done in public is so normal here that you just stop noticing it after a while.

A few months ago my daughter, who was working on her own potty training, pointed to a man who was urinating in a park in Taizhou, began laughing, and asked me what he was doing. “Some men in China are not potty trained,” I explained in terms she could understand.

I’ve been traveling in and out of China since 2005. I don’t flinch when someone near me enacts a bathroom activity in pubic. I am used to a China where men piss in the streets where they please, leaving stairwells, alleyways, and ares of sidewalks caked in dried, sticky urine. I’ve learned to watch my step in public places here that are obscured from public view as the possibility of human fecal landmines is relatively high. I’ve become accustomed to people of this culture looking you right in the eye while picking their noses then artfully flick away the booger without missing a beat. In the China I’ve come to love any prepubescent individual is free to pee or crap wherever they can pull down their pants, and anyone of any age is free to hock loogies like roaring canons. Not even the piles of saliva soaked sunflower seed shucks that inevitably cover the floors of trains can make me shudder. But the China I know is showing signs of coming to an end. These behaviors that I once took to be so ordinary that I thought nobody else noticed have now become taboo.

It was not until this past year that I’ve noticed a mass public outcry over people doing bathroom activities in public. When I first read headlines from enraged netizens over some guy pissing on the street or in the subway I had to laugh. I simply could not believe that people were acting as if this behavior wasn’t completely normal and ubiquitous, and their appeals seemed as ridiculous as saying that cutting in line goes against the Chinese way. Men are always pissing in the streets in the inner provinces of this country, but it doesn’t seem to register in the public consciousness until caught on camera and the evidence uploaded to the internet. It wasn’t until I’ve read about a half dozen articles about how this bathroom behavior is “uncivilized” and is a sign of a “moral vacuum” that I began realizing that I’m witnessing a major cultural shift: China is being dubbed over with a wave of modernized, city slicker ethos.

Though more rare, woman can also be found urinating in public. Though I've noticed that they usually at least try to hide behind something (unlike in this photo).

Though more rare, woman can also be found urinating in public. Though I’ve noticed that they usually at least try to hide behind something (unlike in this photo).

I’ve recently been going around asking people what they think about people pissing in the streets, etc . . . While some pretend that it doesn’t exist, most say things like:

“The people who do that are uncivilized.”

“They are uneducated.”

“They are from the countryside and don’t know anything.”

But taboo is a social construct that often takes at least one generation to set in, and we are in this generational grey area now. I’m observing a China that’s transitioning from a rural to urban society, and hiccups in this cultural metamorphosis are evident just about everywhere outside of the Beijing/ Shanghai fringe.

What has to be remembered here is that not so long ago China was “rustified.” During the Maoist era the peasant and working classes were raised on pedestals for emulation, and much of the cultivated and educated classes were killed off, imprisoned, or sent into the countryside for reeducation — to learn how to be country folk. The youth of the time also moved out into the countryside and worked in communes and Chinese culture became overwhelmingly rustic. What is acceptable behavior in the countryside is different than what is acceptable in the city everywhere in the world, and when China began urbanizing in the 1980s peasants moved to the cities and brought their culture and behaviors with them.

Which leads us to where we are now: in a China where rural and urban cultures are smashing against each other head on. China is not only “modernizing” economically but culturally as well. As people migrate from the countryside into the cities their lifestyle as well as their culture changes. The young adults of China’s cities are not pissing in the streets, spitting everywhere, and picking their noses in public, and they often react harshly against the older generation that still does these things — often with the same type of embarrassment that a young American may have for an uncle or grandparent that makes politically incorrect statements. Though this younger, 100% urban generations often does not pass on the fruits of their culture’s old traditions, and in another generation a good portion of  China’s rural culture will disappear, along with the public pissers, spitters, and finger nail clippers.


Filed under: Changing China, China

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Felix Gervais February 20, 2013, 8:41 pm

    Wonderful article, as usual. You truly grasp and illustrate this aspect of  “generational changing of the guard” currently observed in China, as well as the fact that not everything can be chalked off as cultural differences.
    I remember a thread on Reddit a while ago about the increase in the numbers of Chinese tourists in Switzerland, and the highest-rated comment was something along the lines of “lol so i guess lot’s of the swis ppl now hve to deal with spitter’s lol”. How can people be so retarded startled me, anybody who has ever interacted with a Chinese person under the age of 35 and not born between two cows in a barn (that excludes 75% of expats in China, sadly) knows that this thread is quickly changing and that the new generation shuns those unhygienic and disgusting practices.
    And no comment of mine should be published on this website without a juicy anecdote: on a busy Friday night, stunned to see some fresh-off-the-countryside grandma unceremoniously pull down the pants of a girl of about four, ON THE RAMP LEADING TO A RT MART and inciting her with whispers of “xuxu, xuxu” to urinate right there right now, I knew I had to intervene. I moved closer, stared at the toddler right in the eye and shook my head in disapproval, never losing eye contact. That of course intimidated her and blocked the potential flow. Then, I told her grandma “She’s not an animal! There are toilets inside!” (we could fucking see the fucking toilet signs from where we were) “And people walk here! Go to the tree there if you can’t wait” She laughed uncomfortably, part of it because I shattered her “face” and also because I could read her mind, that in her stupid little uneducated head I was just some laowai who doesn’t understand China. I was just waiting for her to say that but she didn’t and just moved. Still, victory all the way. I got a few smiles and nods of approval from people standing around, which proves I am not the only one thinking that way.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 20, 2013, 9:24 pm

      @Felix Gervais For sure, this is truly an amazing aspect of China. The divide between urban and rural culture in terms of behavior is incredibly massive. What’s really interesting is that with the massive amounts of urban migration over the past few decades these two cultural spheres are piled up on top of each other, and unless you’re in a truly jet set area of a big city you can interact with both simultaneously. It’s like if you took half the population of Alabama and sent them to live in New York City. It’s incredibly that this culture as a whole can tolerate such diversity. But, then again,  it’s my impression that one of this culture’s greatest strengths and weaknesses is that the people don’t really interfere with each other too much. It’s amazing to me how vehemently some people react to dudes pissing in the streets but nobody ever says anything to them. They may take a picture and lambaste them online, but in the streets they say nothing. 
      Props for pointing out to the lady that you didn’t think her letting the kid piss in the walkway was alright. Our daughter pisses in the streets all the time if we can’t find a toilet, but we at least find a bush or tree or go out of the way of where people are walking. It’s truly mind blowing how people encourage their kids to piss and shit on the ground and even on the floor of stores/ stations right in front of bathrooms. Next time I see this I’m going to have to ask why, as it truly makes no sense to me.

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      • Xian Wang April 21, 2013, 4:57 am

        Why is people are lazy. I remember seen an episode of 焦点访谈 where the reporter confronts a person that threw trash on the ground even though he was practically next to a public trash can.

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        • VagabondJourney April 21, 2013, 6:10 am

          Yes, I think that’s the only way this behavior can be modified. It’s interesting that many people get angry on social media about people urinating and throwing garbage in the streets, but very rarely do they ever confront people doing these things in person.

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