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A Ni Hao Cesuo
Caochangdi, Beijing, CN

Beijing’s Public Toilets


“If you have to shit, shit! If you have to fart, fart! You will feel much better for it.” – Mao Zedong

“My trip reminded me that we are all just animals, that stuff comes out of every hole we have, no matter where we live or how much money we’ve got. On some level we all know this and manage, quite pleasantly, to shove it towards the back of our minds. In China, it’s brought to the front, and nailed there.” – David Sedaris

“You know, people just never stop shitting.” – Ai Qing

As a gross overgeneralization, the Chinese tend to have a casual relationship with their excrement. The unsuspecting Westerner might be a bit off put by the public spitting, phlegm-hacking, and gratuitous belching that, while officially not condoned, is nonetheless a part of the daily patois. The pants of most young children in China are equipped with a special type of ass-flap/exit hatch allowing them the liberty to relieve themselves at will. They do. Anywhere, everywhere, and often without warning. Though it’s considered polite for the parents to clean up afterward, experience suggests that this is less common than you would expect.

Part of this informality stems from the long-standing city’s longstanding reliance on public toilets, which today are more numerous than in any other city. Less sanitary than even the most pride-diminishing accommodations in US—somewhere between the Port Authority crossed with the sleazy dive bar from Trainspotting—these buildings house gag-inducing refuse pits that are cleaned manually once a day. Because most of the homes in Beijing’s central hutong neighborhoods lack sanitary plumbing, the public toilets are to some extent hubs for public interaction. It’s not unusual to see neighbors often striking up conversations in the middle of the night on the way to, and in, the lou. This is made all the more convenient in the many facilities lacking dividers between pits, which are known informally as “ni hao cesuos,” or, “hello there, toilets.”

Central Beijing’s toilets were not always public. Instead, they belonged to the wealthy clans that occupied the courtyard houses, siheyuan.While the well-off southern Chinese mounted urns of bronze, toilets in traditional courtyard houses were located in the southwest corner of the plot, opposite the main entrance, and were modest holes dug in the ground. Low-ranking members of the Imperial China’s social hierarchy were given the unfortunate task of emptying the holes and loading the contents onto carts in the early morning hours.

With the Communist Party’s ascension in 1949, the disbandment of bourgeois institutions saw the elevation of common laborers in both social standing and profession. While toilet cleaners became symbols of the ideal laborer, their former position was adopted as a form of punishment for the country’s purged intellectuals. The revolutionary poet Ai Qing, father of Ai Weiwei’s and once a favorite of Mao, was exiled to a small village in the Mongolian desert during the Cultural Revolution where he was forced to clean toilets until after the Chairman’s death.

Today, public restrooms come in various shapes and sizes. Those adjacent to popular tourist destinations have been renovated with modern materials, operable windows, and in some cases doors and dividers. Others, like the one in Caochangdi (above) remain crude outhouses that leave little to the imagination. Under regulations passed within the last decade, every new housing development in Beijing must be equipped with running water and a private toilet, spelling the eventual phasing out of the public toilet. However, the dense and narrow network of hutong streets makes large-scale infrastructural retrofits nearly impossible, which the toilets and their accompanying odor are here to stay, at least for now.