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.