Monthly Archives: May 2013

Making sense of spitting in China II: ‘Cleansing’ beliefs and swallowing as ‘phobia’

Spitting as ‘cleansing’ or related to historic ritual / or traditional/cultural beliefs.

I have seen a number of comments and musings whereby people have suggested that spitting in China is related to ingrained beliefs about bodily fluids such as spittle being ‘bad’ and needing to be expelled and/or in specific notions of ‘cleansing’ through spitting. I have not so far however found any corroboration of these ideas. If they are present it is likely that they are superficial (a general feeling that this is so) rather than ‘meaningful’ (i.e. contemporarily attached to ritual/traditional belief systems) belief.

Swallowing as anathema?

In the discussion following my presentation at the University of Shanghai, one postgraduate student asked simply ‘what do you do [in the West] when you need to clear your throat? [if you don’t spit]’. The question was a straight-forward, simple one but it arguably spoke volumes. My response that ‘you swallow’ was met with a combination of (mild) disbelief/disgust. Swallowing of phlegm was not something immediately obvious to this educated female student and numerous others around the room clearly felt similarly from the looks on their faces and the muted hum that followed my suggestion that you ‘swallow’. It may well be the case that even for those that do not spit in public that they do so in bathrooms and toilets in private.

This possible ingrained cultural aversion to swallowing spittle is supported by recent communications with a US dentist that has numerous Chinese immigrant patients. She has related to me that a dental session with these clients is often extended because they are very uncomfortable with the accumulation of spittle when being ‘worked on’ (more than non-Chinese patients) and that they need regular ‘breaks’ but are less disturbed if a suction tube is permanently in place. I’m not suggesting that swallowing phlegm/spittle is a phobia for many Chinese (although it may be) but it is, it appears, to be something that makes many feel uncomfortable in comparison to expectorating and may be (in part at least) at the root of the commonality of spitting in China and it’s comparative (elites apart) acceptance.


Media Coverage

Some recent media coverage of the research – one is from the London Metro, the Chinese language one is based on the lecture I gave at the University of Shanghai


Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai, a popular daily paper

This has now disappeared – that’s online news for you!

Seoul Times

Making sense of spitting in China I

Isabelle, myself and Prof Yong-an Zhang will continue to research spitting in China. We will translate and adapt the spitting survey to dig down deeper into the ways that spitting manifests in different regions, rural and urban.

As we have seen so far however the observations in Shanghai both conform to popular (and Chinese government) representations of highly prevalent spitting in China but at times also confound it. Yes, spitting is common and yes, the form of spitting is usually less restrained by cultural mores i.e. it is often an unabashed, no-nonsense/honest clearing of the tubes and throat with little regard to the sight or hearing of others.

My survey (still only in mid-stream), along with observations and discussions with locals however suggest that despite spitting being louder and more visible in China it is at one and the same time pretty much unseen and unheard by many Chinese. It is so embedded in their normal lives that it often goes unnoticed. let me give an example from a Chinese woman that responded to a post I made on an online Ex-pat site a couple of months back when recruiting for the survey:

Re: Spitting in Shenzhen
posted 02/04/2013 23:32
Comment by JZ in reply to post on

lol! Chinese people are not awaring of it, it may be huge impoliteness to westerners as it’s disgusting, not environmental friendly etc. but most Chinese don’t have the sense of protecting the environment, and also because many Chinese do this, so within Chinese society, most people I would say are used to it, especially some middle or low class people such as labour workers, farmers etc within the society (personally I don’t like to classify people, but this is a phenomenon of the society). last but not least, as Chinese, I personally find it’s not nice, but in my entire childhood, I ]never taught this is not a nice thing to do :p

The last sentence intrigued me. JZ never thought in her entire childhood that spitting was not a nice thing to do. If it wasn’t a problem it just ‘was’. I wrote back and asked her if her shift in perception had anything to do with international exposure. Revealingly, she wrote back that it probably did:

“Thank you for your email Ross. I would very much like to help your research. from what I remember I wasn’t given much reinforcement on either spitting is a good or bad thing as my family members obviously don’t pay much attention to this behaviour. This is a gradual and unnoticeable change of my thought. Now I’m thinking it could be largely due to my overseas education and almost 7 years life experience abroad at my early 20s.”

For many in China however, it is clear from my observations, little attention is still paid to spitting and as such, it is for them, of little consequence. Over recent years however, especially in relation to outfacing events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the Chinese government has baldly announced that Chinese citizens should improve their manners and become more civilised. Spitting among a number of other ‘bad habits’ was singled out as a behaviour to be modified.

Processes of change

It is unlikely that spitting, even in China and India is static. Observations also revealed that in certain spaces spitting is either greatly diminished or practically absent (I doubt it is actually absent even though I didn’t observe/hear it) in newer and recently ‘sanitised’ areas of the city and cleaner tourist spots. It doesn’t appear – from the evidence I have seen so far – that this relative diminution/absence is the result of anti-spitting campaigns. More likely it is the result of modernisation/urbanisation and a relative growth in cleaner environments that check normal behaviour. What is of further interest is the degree that spitters modify their behaviour temporarily after being increasingly exposed to such contexts or more permanently. These questions and more will be followed up.

Day 23 – Shanghai / China Day 5: No spitting in evidence? The business district(s); People’s Square; East Nanjing Road and waiting area/‘trackside’ at Shanghai Railway and Bus stations

This was a day that taught me a lot about spitting in Shanghai / China and made me reflect on processes of change and trajectories of societal ‘development’ a little further than to date.

If you were a visitor to Shanghai and followed my day 5 trail you could have easily (unlike days 1, 2 or 4) gone away being blissfully unaware that you had stepped into one of the world’s great spitting nations. The itinerary for the day was planned but the pattern of observations/findings was unexpected and there was nothing, intuitively, about the locations that would have raised suspicion that anything new was going to be evident.

Isabelle and I started with the inside – the indoor waiting and outdoor track areas of Shanghai Railway Station – and the indoor waiting area of the long distance Bus Terminal. Reports from bloggers on the web suggested these would be areas littered with spit and spitters yet both areas resembled something closer to airport terminals than rail/bus station waiting areas. We looked/observed and waited. No spitting took place whilst we were there and no spitting detritus was visibly present Isabelle and I reflected that the cleanliness of the spaces perhaps had a constraining effect on spitting. Other rail and bus stations she told me would not be as clean as Shanghai’s main stations.

In the tunnel between Shanghai Railway Station and the bus station we observed only the second no spitting sign from two days observations in multiple parts of the city.


We then jumped on the subway and headed to one of the most prominent business districts – Lujiazui. As you can see from the (360 degree photograph) this has amazing skyscraper skylines and is a new as can be. It is also very clean.


Whilst observing from the bridge right in its centre, not only did we not see or hear any spitting at all we also noticed that smoking was almost non-existent too. Leaving the heavily trafficked bridge we observed a busy bus stop area on the main street. Plenty of by passer traffic combined with a fairly busy bus stop area produced once again no spitting at all. We may have expected less spitting but we were seeing a total absence.

Our next stop was People’s Square which is in fact a medium/modest size park in the centre of the city that is well kept and populated by both locals and tourists. Unlike my visit to the ‘normal’ park on Day 1 this showpiece park produced no spitters even though in one area there were groups of men gambling together, smoking and huddled over tables and engrossed in the goings on. We waited and observed and … nothing.

Our last stop of the day was the very tourist focussed, pedestrianised East Nanjing Road (see image). Again, a well maintained area – full of tourists. We walked up and down, sat observed and listened but no spitting was seen or heard.


Reflections on spitting in China will follow in the next post

Day 22 – Shanghai / China Day 4: Lecture at the University of Shanghai and collaborative developments

On day 4 in Shanghai I delivered my presentation to academics and postgraduate students at the Centre for Global Studies. Professor Yong-an Zhang had been kind enough to act as my academic contact in Shanghai, had arranged for Isabelle to act as my guide and had sponsored my visa application (of which he told me he had to actually field a call from the Chinese Embassy in London who were querying whether my visit was bona-fide).

The lecture went very well, produced a helpful discussion and also facilitated / helped lay the foundation for a range of agreed future activities between myself and Professor Yong-an, and Plymouth University and the University of Shanghai. These activities will certainly involve continued research around spitting in China as well as drugs (Prof Zhang is a research expert on the history of drug control in China) and drug issues – also my primary area of research expertise. Discussions have begun also on future exchange possibilities (staff and students) as well as the potential for developing taught programmes to be delivered jointly.

One issue that came up related to the way that Shanghai was changing in regards to spitting; the ways that migrant workers and local spitters, whilst not being coerced into change may feel less able to spit with abandon when confronted by cleaner environments where spitting would feel wrong/out of place (Mary Douglas for example talks of the way that ‘matter’ (e.g. spit; smoking; litter) can go from being accepted to ‘out of place’ depending on the context.

I am joined in the picture by Professor Zhang (left) and Dr Fowler Zeng (Guie) Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of the School of Foreign Languages (second from the right).


Day 21 – Shanghai / China Day 3: City edges and ‘rurality’, university grounds and tourist spaces

On day 3 in Shanghai, Isabelle Chen, my guide (a postgraduate history student at the University of Shanghai) and I had an itinerary that aimed to take in ‘rural’ areas beyond Shanghai. In the end however, after travelling to the end of city line we found ourselves in one town, Zhuan Qiao, south west of Shanghai that ten years ago would have been nothing but farmland and a village and a town even further on, Minhang – listed simply as a Development Town on the railway. Both are situated beyond the city map, but Zhuan Qiao is now swallowed up by the rapid urbanisation stretching Shanghai ever outwards and Minhang is effectively being swallowed as I write. The rationale was to assess the extent to which rural life has spitting even more embedded (for women too) than central Shanghai. In newly urbanised Zhuan Qiao however, there was not too much by way of people traffic (we saw regular(ish), occasional hocking and spitting but not so much and no women spitting) and in the Development Town it was lunchtime with few people around the markets we had hoped to observe. Isabelle reasoned that it was unlikely that the ‘traffic’ would increase much as it was a scorching hot day and hanging around the streets wasn’t going to be easy for us nor too likely for locals either. Rurality proper had eluded us and even if it hadn’t less people traffic likely to have confronted us by way of farms/farmland means spitting observations may well have been difficult in any case. Observations of rural spitting would need a longer more organised research strategy.

Isabelle Chen


We travelled back to the city (where on route we saw our very first -non-dedicated – ‘no spitting’ sign on the train – we didn’t see another that day) and straight to the green campus grounds of the high ranking Jiao Jong University. Within these well-kept grounds we saw a number of men spitting including one, who accompanied by friends and girlfriend, spat noisily and casually to the ground in the shaded grassy area populated by numerous other students.


After Jiao Jong University we went to a very busy, very noisy tourist area (an ‘old’ part of Shanghai now effectively converted to a tourist attraction. The thronging of people was extensive and no spitting was seen, couldn’t be heard and in practice would have been difficult. We speculated that in such an area spitting to the street might be less likely but that spitting into the large street rubbish bins would be perhaps more likely. We sat and observed two sets of bins for around 15 minutes but saw no spitting into the bins either.

Day 5 – as we shall see helped us make more sense of this differential experience of spitting incidence in Shanghai.

Day 20 – Shanghai / China day 2 – Casual observations continued

With Isabelle my guide not booked into assist me with my observations until Day 2 (and then Day 4 also), on Day 2 of Shanghai I decided to undertake some minimal observations alone. With Shanghai Railway Station, the largest rail/bus hub in Shanghai also accommodating a busy subway, just a five minute walk away from my hotel I felt that this was an ideal space to observe busy transient crowds of people of all ages as well as give me easy access to the subway for exploring slightly further afield.

On the way to the station two men (separate occasions) produced a casual hock and a spit. Once outside the station on the concourse/square which bounds the front of its entrance (see video) spitting occurred regularly but not incessantly.

Spitting was ever present without being so continuously. My field notes perhaps relate this more clearly:
‘2 mins, just in front of station itself looking at those walking into the building; man – hock and spit straight to the floor and not one person looked; although facing towards station could hear regular hocks from crowd behind me; 5 mins in front another man – hock and spit.’

`Went inside ticket office building – loud hock after 5 mins – man spits onto ‘abandoned’ cleaners cart and mop (that he purposely walked to) not on floor’ (see image).


Around the station square outside there are occasional large globules of phlegm/spit here and there. In case you don’t know what I mean…


‘A women, late 30s strides across the square. Hocks firmly, turns to the side and a very purposeful spitting action that is clearly very practised and nonchalant at the same time’

After Shanghai Railway Station I decided to go (via the subway) to one of the parks in the city – Zhongshan Park. Again my field notes are illustrative:

‘Going in, loud and purposeful hock and spit; then older man walking in front, casual hock and spit into the path of two oncoming young women neither of whom noticed and/or didn’t care and there was no malice involved; then park keeper or police/security (difficult to tell) spit on park walkway. Women, around 45 leans forward and dribbles out a spit;’

On my return to Shanghai Railway Station and to my hotel I passed a nearby electronics mall. This is a building (4 floors) housing stall after stall of people selling mostly mobile phone related consumables (phones; accessories; repairs offered and so on). Despite their being many people sweeping and clearing up the floor is dirty and the mall is scruffy/unclean generally. Less like a mall than an old fashioned ‘indoor market’ with floors. On entering I immediately heard a hock and a spit, then another and another after two more minutes; I saw one globule of spit on the floor separate to a spitter.
5.18pm woman spits into a tissue, another woman 5.52pm stacking boxes on the street – loud hock and spit.