June 2, 2007


Filed under: China,culture — Kim @ 5:08 pm

Scene = my pricey American gym in downtown Dalian. I am taking a well deserved sauna after a hard day’s work followed by 40 minutes on the exercise bike. Soul-warming sweat and loyly are helping the day to ease to a peaceful conclusion. Then a big fat punter walks in and joins me, and starts searching for a long lost lump of his lung. At least when he finally hoiked it out he flobbed it onto the floor instead of sizzling it on the heater. But still…grim.

Over the past few months, I have got used to the Chinese habit of ‘expelling the devil”, but the incident above brought back memories of my initial disgust and -yes- culture shock at the sheer amount of spitting that goes on in China. Arch sino-sceptic Keir has a snappy tag to his blog, “Adrift in a sea of phlegm”, and that captures nicely my feeling during the first few weeks in China when I remember going a bit queasy at the thought that every single square inch of public ground I was walking on had recently been christened by some unspeakable expectoration. I felt like investing in a pair of stilts.

I think I understand why Chinese people spit more than Europeans or Japanese or Thais or any other people I’ve come across really. Something to do with the bad air quality in Chinese cities, the large number of heavy smokers (nearly 60% of men in the country smoke apparently!) and the Chinese belief that you should clear the body of dirty harmful toxins…by gobbing out your mucky mottled mucus.

It’s also true though that many Chinese regard spitting in public as a sign of “low quality’ and “a countryside custom”. My (high suzhi) relatives will spit in their own home but almost never outside it and they think that spitting in public makes China lose face in the eyes of foreigners, which it does. We all know that spitting is something the Beijing cub scouts are trying to cover up for the Olympics, so there might be a bit less of it in the not too distant future.

But what about spitting in other countries? I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that spitting used to be considered perfectly normal and acceptable behaviour in Europe, so I googled it and found out about a great sounding book called The Civilizing Process by the sociologist Norbert Elias. He wrote

Social attitudes towards spitting have changed greatly in western Europe since the Middle Ages. Then, frequent spitting was part of everyday life at all levels of society – indeed, it was thought ill-mannered to suck back saliva to avoid spitting. By the early 1700s, spitting had become seen as something which should be concealed, and by 1859 many viewed the spitting on the floor or street as vulgar, especially in mixed company. Spittoons were used openly during the nineteenth century to provide an acceptable outlet for spitters. Spitoons became far less common after the influenza epidemic of 1918, and their use has since virtually disappeared

That “by 1859” seems curiously exact. Was there a big poll on spitting that year or something? Anyway, you get the point…spitting has, by and large, died out in Europe, although not in the English Premier League where most players spit more than consumptives from Anhui.

Spitting took a little longer to fade away in America it would seem, as evinced by this snidey Oscar Wilde quote from 1882 “America is one long expectoration“. And apparently in the US there used to be a mass produced sign seen in many saloons that read:

If you expect to rate as a gentleman
Do not expectorate on the floor

Ha-de-ha. I hope people spat on it. (Yes “spat” as past tense not “spit”, that’s one Americanism I’ll never get used to.)

And the sign reminds me of the old Limerick

There was a young man from Darjeeling
Who got on a tube train to Ealing
It said on the door
Don’t spit on the floor
So he leant back and spat on the ceiling.

And of the pisstake of Bizet’s Carmen that my dad sings from time to time

“Toreador don’t spit upon the floor! Use a cuspidor, waddya think it’s for?”

And did you know that James Joyce claimed that to him, ‘cuspidor’ (a synonym of ‘spittoon’) was the most beautiful word in the English language?

Random stuff…back to China!

Spitting is one of the three S’s (there’s always a categorisation for stuff in China) the three social disgraces of spitting, smoking and shouting that tend to shock prissy westerners. Spitting and smoking are obviously closely linked and since the government is always banging on these days about a harmonious society the following does not bode well for those who hope for a little less spittle on the sino-sidewalks…

Zhang Baozhen, a top bureaucrat at the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, warned that anti-smoking proposals could lead to social instability. “We take the fact that smoking is harmful seriously, but without cigarettes the country’s stability will be affected,” he told the meeting.

So fuck it, if you can’t beat them, join them. I’m off for a smoke and a big juicy hhhhhhkkkaaaakkkerthfffpaaaah!