Cleanliness and Filth

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.

street scene in Pingyao

street scene in Pingyao

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.

a 'night soil' depot seen (and smelled) from the city wall of Pingyao

a ‘night soil’ depot seen (and smelled) from the city wall of Pingyao

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?


  • rachela

    August 12, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Translation of Simone’s comment for those who don’t know Dutch: I once had a roommate (Chinese parents) who went back to her ancestral home. She found it awful. Your story above was exactly what she experienced. I hope that the tourist sites are prettier.

    Thanks, Simone! I’ve heard similar things about Americans from lots of different backgrounds visiting their ‘homelands’: Blacks to Africa, for example. It just isn’t home! Krislyn, whose background is Singaporean Chinese, has been pretty constantly horrified.

  • Simone Hartholt

    August 12, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Had ooit een huisgenoot (Chinese ouders) die terugging naar haar geboortegrond. Ze vond het vreselijk. Jouw bovenstaande verhaal was precies wat zij ervoer…
    Hoop dat de bezienswaardigheden mooier zijn.

  • Susan

    August 29, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Yes, I almost want to invest in Proctor and Gamble or whoever ends up selling the most cleaning agents to the Chinese—many of them are in sore need of learning cleaning habits. (It is all in how you are raised. So someone will make a fortune running home economics classes in the schools, or for the adults. I myself was literally on my hands and knees yesterday for an hour in my tiny bathroom with an old brush, rag, Dow foam bathroom cleaner, then toothpaste and hydrogen peroxide to whiten my white bathroom floor—when I was a child in the 1960s I learned all about getting the house “spic and span” clean–especially the kitchens and bathrooms. Bleach, white vinegar, baking soda, and now denatured alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are my best cleaning friends!)

    Regarding your comment about the body odor: I can say that until I started exercising regularly and actually working to a sweat, I don’t recall ever perspiring much. So for some of those people you encountered, they may have been taught about cleanliness and to boot they probably didn’t sweat much (sweat makes it easier for dirt to stick to you which clogs the pores). Maybe the people know to bathe themselves and wash their clothes well too. It’s an educational/public health issue that, even if already addressed, could take time for all citizens to start embracing. I heard that new habits take 21 straight days to develop–if the Chinese just mandated new cleaning routines and gave people their first supplies to last 3 months, how many Chinese would start a new cleaning habit?

  • Bek

    February 6, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    The body odor issue is actually genetic. East Asians have a gene that changes the sweat and bacteria they produce while perspiring… Leaving no odor.

  • John

    May 25, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    The answer is pretty straightforward if you think about it historically. China prior to the (pre 1950s) cultural revolution was a society with better education, sanitary habits, and overall cleanliness. World war II and the subsequent cultural revolution practically wiped out all intellectuals, aristocrats, and educated people in most cities, leaving in its wake a relatively uneducated and uncultured mass that became the status quo. This is the generation that you see living in the cities. Where as, if you go to chinese societies untouched by the cultural revolution like Taiwan, HK, or Singapore, you get a completely different picture. The hotels and clean facilities you are seeing is the result of the recent industrial revolution and transition to a modern society. As China’s society continues to modernize and improve with education, the squalor will disappear within the next decade.

    • Lily

      November 25, 2018 at 2:41 pm

      Taiwan was a Japanese colony for almost half a century and HK was a British colony for 99 years. The foreign influence on these two places do not allow a comparison for how China could have developed without the cultural revolution. Macao was a Portugese colony for many years and it was pretty filthy when I visited 20 years ago.


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