Beijing WC, illustrated

Beijing WC user guide by Su Wei, click on image to see whole guide.

This essay is by a university student named Eric Mu who spent last summer in the capital working at a book store.

The illustration is by the Beijing-based graphic designer Su Wei—click on the image to see the whole instruction manual for using a squat toilet in Beijing.

All rights reserved by both creators.

Beijing WC

So this is Beijing, where the shiny futuristic-looking skyscrapers are many while the public toilets are few and far between.

Maybe you've had one glimpse or two of a real Beijing WC, somewhere down in a deep hutong: brick concrete structure, men one side, ladies the other, decorated with big or small Chinese characters indicating something political, or vulgar, sometimes both. There are also the posters on the wall giving you medical advice to treat certain kinds of diseases that you do not want others to know about; and the phone numbers of people who promise you counterfeited anything, from a college degree to residence permit. Most importantly, these Beijing WC are—as far as I know, with no exception—forbiddingly and intimidatingly smelly and disgusting.

The nearest one to the place I stayed this last summer was a typical Beijing WC. It was five minutes’ walk away from my place. Every morning, following my natural instinct, I went there. Even before my arrival, I knew it would be already occupied by some even earlier birds so I would have to wait outside for another few minutes to get my turn to release the pressure my eating of yesterday had caused me. Once I got a place, I tried my best to finish the work as soon as possible to avoid being suffocated by the strong smell.

I am afraid I cannot find the right words to describe the scientific design of the Beijing traditional WCs: When you are doing the business, you are squatting over a huge pit. Never look down, because if you do, you'll get dizzy as if you were looking down from a high cliff down to the sea, only the sea down there is not beautiful blue. From the sea level to where you are, the vertical distance can be as high as two metres.

More scary is when you come to the realization that nothing is going to protect you if you have a sudden loss of consciousness, say a stroke, at the critical moment. Even for a fit and healthy man, there is a chance of a slight careless move which may end up with a life-or-death struggle against being drowned in the ocean of human excrement below. One time when I was there, trembling in fear, agonized by toxic gas, I came up with questions that would not normally occur to me under any circumstance but this:

How many people have actually died in this way? Are there any statistics or records?

Apparently, I am not the only one sheltering this kind of unfavourable feeling towards the WC. One night, I was woken up by a suspicious sound of water coming out of a window near mine, the kind of sound which you readily associate with certain body functions. The sound explained the weird smells that came up to me every time I opened the window.

I am not sure if I am just over-sensitive, or if everyone else also went through an internal struggle before this uncivilised behaviour of pissing out of windows became an accepted norm. But when I did it, even though I knew almost everyone else did the same, there was a feeling that I became less human and more animal.

To make me feel less guilty, I did try to rationalize my motives: it is not me who does not want to go to a toilet like a civilized and educated Chinese citizen, it is just the toilet was so intolerably smelly and far away.

In the place where I worked, the bookstore, there was a small and clean toilet near the door. But there was also the warning that the facility had some malfunction, so the solid kind of human waste was not welcome. I doubted if there was really a problem, but I never asked. Don’t embarrass people even though you know it is a lie.

My boss always, a little boastfully, proudly preached to us that everyone should be treated equally, and in this book store, even “peasant workers” were welcome to sit down and read a book if they like. But I think maybe sometimes, they need a clean and well-lighted toilet more than, say a book written by Yu Dan or even written by Confucius himself. I doubt if books, especially the kind of books in this store (philosophy, sociology, history, stories written by someone who hated school and dropped out and made tons of money, anecdotes of some woman who was beautiful but died 50 years ago, etc.) will bring this group of people any substantial change. More than once, peasant workers came to the book store with anxious looks on their faces. After reading the warning, they were enormously disappointed, they vanished quickly.

At this point, I felt I should thank the KFC here for not only providing people with clean food but also clean WC. Despite the fact that I had never tried their food (sorry, no hard feelings, only a little bit too expensive for my humble income), I did enjoy their impeccably clean sanitation several times. Maybe they are not so generous to give you a free lunch, but even the free toilet is a great gesture, isn’t it?

* * *

Now it is months away from my Beijing days, I can reflect on my experience in a dispassionate way, and it is also my belief that whatever your experience is, good or bad, it can always be enriching in some way. So what did the Beijing experience teach me?

I guess it is the tolerance if not sympathy for the people living under harsher conditions.

* * *

Once, I came by a new type of movable toilet, bright green, on the side of a street. I was told that it was high tech and environmentally friendly new generation WC and it was part of the bid for 2008 Olympic Games and probably take over the old ones very soon. So let's hope for the best. As for the Olympic Games, if it can bring China higher sanitary standards, then at least it is good for one thing.

There are currently 16 Comments for Beijing WC, illustrated.

Comments on Beijing WC, illustrated

cool, some fris when they first see the toilets in china, they dont no how to use it or where should they place their legs. i really appreciate those guys who come up with this and give an introduction how to use it, thx, ha.

here i will post one passage i wrote one year ago, hope u can take another glimpse of the lovely toilet culture, ha. i just cut and paste :0

u know what, i like the toilet culture since i entered the uni. the time when i visited some places, i will definitely take pics of the toilets. it sounds a little bit weird, but that's me!

it's really funny, u know, when u compare them later, esp after a period of time, u can find they have different facilities and those things can reflect the cultures in different places :)

I am not sure whether i'm the expert in this field...but check this the way, i did have some conversations b4 with some foreign teachers under this topic, ha!

Here we got some examples, (in China)

a four or five star hotel had seating facilities and a flushing mechanism to move the unwanted out.

A three star had a long oblong porcelain basin, no sitting facilities but it did have the flushing mechanism to move your business out. On occasion, there would be a foul odour coming up, hoho. it's true

A two star hotel had the bathrooms set up as communal units (the one like in our dorms or in some public places). Down the end of the hall you would go to use the facilities, men to the left and women to the right (男左女右的恰当应用,乎乎). There were usually two or three stalls for each with a channel running vertically to all the stalls, in order to flush away the waste of our body.

Another kind of toilet is like this, Water would come across a kind of horizontal channel once in a while to move all the business out. If you were at the end stall, you would have an opportunity to view other people's business as it floated by. (You'd better not think of that image, or you possibly will throw out, haha...btw, have you saw that kind of toilet b4? sometimes when you go to the outskirts, you can also find)

are you sure you wanna hear some others? haha...

The one star hotels (i dont know whether it can still be called STAR) still used the normal outhouses as facilities, many times they were multi-seated 位子 for multiple visitors...again one room for men and the other for women.

The train toilet was nothing more then a hole, in the floor, with the train tracks running by below you.

Also, if you always pay attention to the passers-by, you can find that many young children (1-3 years of age) had slits in the back of their pants so when they had a desire or need to relieve themselves, they could pretty much squat anywhere. really funny...

i start to find that i really got talents in this field,huh?! 窃笑中!

later i'll put some pics of toilets i took in some cities in AUS and in Korea, really funny...

They should make T-Shirts with this!

This is a discussion which the world needs. We are all eating, we all make poo and we all use toilets (except for those who are so poor they must go in the street.)

Anyway - we have to know that we are all human. Poo is the defining factor.

Every man and woman does it. Even the Queen of England.

Only when we finally understand this shared condition will war stop.

How can you fight a man that you know is you?

Ahh~ Interesting experience~
I stayed 2 weeks in Beijing on vacation 2 years ago. Luckily, I didn't have that kind of experience. ^_^

Like your English, like the picture ~

yeah, maybe toilets of Beijing have became a culture... Impressed.
BTW, making T-shirts with this pic printed is a GREAT idea!!


Thanks for the skillfully-done artwork, but there's an important omission. Grab your pant legs when you pull the pants down! You hold your pant cuffs up, out of the shit, while pulling the waist down!! Get every bit of fabric as close to the knees as possible to keep everything out of the way. First time users will be dismayed at the sight of their pant legs dragging in offal while they are squatting.


your caution is so great ! I can't help laughing !!!!!!!!!

Actually it’s a little bit exaggerated in this article. I had been living in Beijing since 2001 when I begin my university life. As a common students and citizens, I only suffered 2-3 times the terrible experience as talked in this artifice during last 7 years in Beijing. Anyway, I know for poor Beijing local people, this always happen in daily life. It takes time to improve the sanitary condition and living standard for poor people in Beijing and China. Don’t forget that, China is still a developing country with strong contrast between poor and rich, and also with a big gap compared with developed countries.


for the stats, maybe the percentage out of the huge population is really small. kids grow up in China learning how to use these WCs, just like you English-spoken people using folks and knives. I totally agree with the author, China should try to pick up some small things first, before its appetite gets too big.

The comments above strike me as your typical storm-in-a-teacup, the sort that inevitably occur when someone has the nerve to criticize -- or worse yet, satirize -- any aspect of the sacred Capital of China.

I've been living in various parts of China for over 20 years, and frequently spend several days in 20+ cities a year. My first visit to Beijing was in 1981, my most recent in 2007. So I feel qualified to weigh in on this topic, since -- it be must admitted -- I go to the loo regularly too. Even in the Capital.

Fact 1: Beijing is the only city in China where I frequently encounter a sign in the loo exhorting me to "Pee only, no shitting allowed!"

Fact 2: Despite the large investment made in recent years, the general standard of hygiene of public WCs in Beijing is quite inferior to that in place in Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai and several cities in Zhejiang Province as a whole. Congratulations to the governments of those cities for getting it right. (Albert, take note.)

Fact 3: Everybody I know prefers to go to the loo in McDonald's, provided there is one in the vicinity. Clean, private, no charge. Tells you a lot about the ability of the private sector to meet the needs of the "consumer," doesn't it?

Personally, I find Joe's comment ("Grab the pant's leg when you pull the pants down!") to be the most objective and useful statement of any above.

Looking forward to the day when we can enjoy Beijing for the fascinating city it is, make the occasional joke about it if we like, and move on without resorting to the oh so tiresome "but-China-is-a-poor-country" argument.

The directions (and the illustration) are wrong from the beginning--As one should face the other way (away from the protrusion and the hole) when squating.

I mean, if you pose your butt, instead of your face (and nose), toward the hole, you can hit three birds with the same stone:

1. less ordor (since the stuff drops deep into the hole and your nose is facing the other side)

2. safer (less likely to fall) since your butt is above a porcelain protrusion (see the pix), so if you actually fall, you will fall onto the protrusion with a little bump instead of, say, into the stuff

3. with this, reversed, pose you will be facing the door (if there is one), if there is one. so if someone else came by, smile and say hi (or by the Chinese custom, say "Have you had your meal yet?" )

I remember one of my first office/apartments back in 96 that had a squat toilet. I thought it was really great. I also agree with Steve Chan that you really have the idea backwards --- It's best to let your business drop directly into the hole (and back out of the way in case there's water there!). Makes things a little less stinky and adds some enjoyment to the process.. trying to get a 'swoosh' with nothing hitting the sides.

Other than that, I believe there's some evidence that points to squat toilets as the natural position for humans to get rid of the number 2, so intestinal health is another reason I'm all for the squatting loo.

That said, I think many of the problems with the toilets in Beijing have much to do with putting shitty toilet paper in wastebaskets next to the toilet (squat or not), and some misunderstandings on how to properly use a squat toilet. I little technological innovation and you'll find quite nice squat toilets. (I believe some places in HK/Korea/Japan still have them, though they're few and far between)

哈哈,Eric 是我的大学同学,哪是是成长于发达的西方国家的哦。



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