I’m puzzled by Chinese attitudes toward cleanliness. The cities we’ve seen so far: Beijing, Chengde, Datong, Pingyao and where we are now, Hancheng, are dirty, loud, crowded places. People spit loudly and copiously on the street. There’s litter. Everyone smokes, everywhere. Look at the short film I’ve added here and you’ll see what I mean: it’s the view from our 11th floor hotel room here in Hancheng. If you’re wondering if it’s overcast or if that’s pollution, I don’t know; I can’t tell.
The worst part is the toilets: they are smelly and filthy and disgusting. They’re squat toilets, which is good as far as I’m concerned, because that allows me to avoid touching them, but I don’t understand why people accept that level of filth, especially the smell. There’s never toilet paper, and, apparently because the plumbing can’t take it, the toilet paper (that people bring themselves) doesn’t get flushed but gets put in a wastepaper basket next to the toilet—hence the smell. There’s more detail I could give, but I think you get the idea.
Clearly, too, the vast majority of people here live in relative squalor: mostly run-down huge apartment blocks. There are many public toilets along the streets, and they all stink (I haven’t been in them, but they stink just walking by.). I suspect that many people don’t have toilets of their own, perhaps because apartments and more traditional houses have been subdivided so much, so these public toilets get a lot of use.
In the smaller towns, even without massive apartment buildings, people live in squalor. Yesterday, in Pingyao (which is a popular tourist destination because the original walled city of traditional courtyard houses is completely intact), we were walking a side street, away from the main tourist area, and saw a ‘night soil’ man. They used to have these in European and American cities as well, but that was perhaps 100 years ago! This man had a donkey-pulled cart with a big tank mounted on it, and he was pouring a bucket of ‘night soil’ into the tank. That means there are people living in these traditional courtyard houses who still don’t have plumbing for toilets.
Early this morning we had to leave for the train to Hancheng and walked in the old center of Pingyao for a block or two. It was a hot night and some people had left doors open for air. What we saw is that people live in one room, and they sleep on their tables (See my last post about beds.).
At the same time, they can be exceedingly clean too. The hotels we’ve stayed in are spotless, and labour must be cheap because there are people busy dusting furniture, cleaning floors and so on all day. Shops and restaurants are often bare-bones, but always clean. The train compartments and the bedding on the sleepers are absolutely threadbare, but clean, and the windows of the train are cleaner than the average in Holland. (Yet the train toilets are just as bad as the public ones.)
Several times I’ve seen people pull out tissues and carefully clean around the sides of their shoes. In the waiting room at the train station, where I saw people spit and litter even inside, I watched a woman very carefully peruse the available seats critically before deciding which to sit in. People dust off their scooters before sitting down.
People here are always neatly dressed, even if they are poor. Their clothes are clean and their hair is clean. How they manage that, I don’t know. And people here don’t smell of body odor, even in this midsummer heat. I don’t think I’ve visited any other city in the summer where people don’t smell!
So where is the boundary? When is cleanliness important and when is filth acceptable?