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.


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