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.

Day 19 – Travel to Shanghai, the Maglev train and first spitting experiences

The flight from Seoul to Shanghai was thankfully at a good time of day, a short and easy two hour flight into Pudong Airport followed by a quick 10 minute trip on the 431 KPH magnetic levitation Maglev train – the fastest in the world – to the city centre.

My first Shanghai spitting experience however preceded getting the train and for this short post, as a taster, I thought I would just relate my field-notes for that first afternoon:

‘Straight off the plane, inside the airport, Chinese man with family and laden with duty free turns, puts down his packages and does a double ‘snot-rocket’ onto the floor. Not big ones or loud’.

‘First hour in hotel well dressed business man in shirt and tie waiting for the lift in the lobby suddenly leans down, hocks and spits in the waste bins outside the lifts’ [seen here]


‘Quick 10 minute walk around roads near to hotel, two men hock and spit casually onto the floor’

On subsequent days the impression given by this first afternoon was both reinforced – there is a lot of spitting in Shanghai and it can be surprisingly ‘in your face’ – but it was also increasingly informed by different patterns and factors not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Watch this space.

Successful data collection: planning, perseverance, reflection, luck and serendipity

This blog is partly about the research process itself and the trip has offered up a range of ‘issues’ that show how research and research outcomes can be affected by various challenges.

The field-work element of this research has, thankfully, gone pretty well. Obviously this is what I would have hoped for. Achieving a successful outcome in research however is never straight-forward and in this case there were a number of parts that could have gone badly wrong that have involved a certain amount of continued fortune/luck despite extensive planning. Even the best laid plans can come unstuck so even though preparation for this tour of six Asian cities was many months in the making I think it is worth briefly reflecting on how it could all have gone so differently but also on how research develops over time and should respond to its context. What I’m going to do here therefore is briefly consider/reflect on, in turn, how planning, perseverance, reflection, luck and serendipity have affected the research and its outcomes to date.


Obviously all research should be as well planned out as possible, both the day-to-day schematics of what will be done, how and where, as well as contingency preparation for if things do not go so well. Planning for this trip was extensive and ranged from planning the route effectively so as to minimise jet lag as each leg was completed (see first post itinerary) and making sure that good guides and contacts were arranged for each location, to knowing about how to best try to avoid getting unwell during the course of the research and or contract unwanted diseases. On the latter, up to 60% of travellers to regions such as Asia can succumb to Travellers’ diarrhoea, and given that I was travelling to six Asian countries, only one of which has genuinely safe drinking water for travellers (Japan) then this was a clear priority as a bout of illness would disrupt the research and potentially undermine it completely. Preventing illness meant a restricted diet whilst travelling (no ice cubes at any time; no salads; no fish/seafood; vegetables dishes wherever possible and only meat, if unavoidable, that is freshly cooked and fried where possible. This was unfortunate to some degree as each of these countries has cuisine that was very tempting. Antibacterial hand gel was a common mainstay and applied regularly as was insect repellent and sunscreen. A number of inoculations were also needed.


To be honest this is just a ‘given’ in the research process. There were numerous times when the pace was overbearing. The trip could have been twice as long and still been insufficient/too short in many respects.

As for the occasionally overbearing pace – on four of the legs this involved: arriving, going straight in the field, walking and/or travelling for hours on end (in most cases even when using the subway standing room only was the norm) getting back to the hotel, preparing for the following day or travel to a new destination (often overnight). Blisters and sore feet became the norm (I knew I should have trained for this) as did tiredness. It was also exhilarating at points however so don’t get the impression that it was drudgery – it wasn’t, but it was demanding. Many of the days in the field consisted of around 7-8 hours walking, observing, moving around, with usually a short lunch break in between. Nearly every day in the field was undertaken in heat above 30 degrees centigrade and a number of them considerably so. Both myself and each of my wonderful guides/co-researchers felt the strain of these long, hot, draining days. It would have been easy (and understandable) to now and again have cut a day short or missed a day planned for the field but each new location visited added meaningfully to the research and data collection. Whether it is desk based research or research in new settings, persevering where possible and completing the planned data collection phases always brings its rewards and it did here.


Well the blog has helped a lot here. It has operated in many ways like a mini research diary (which I have also kept and which contains many more notes about all of the observations made – spitting and non-spitting related both).This is mixed methods research (also involving an online survey) but this part of it is mostly qualitative; involving observations, conversations/feedback from locals and of course reflection on what I have seen and been told and how it fits with a better understanding of spitting in different contexts. In this sense the research is and has been dynamic – as new ideas or concepts have developed through what I have seen – I have recorded many of them on the blog to help me both formulate what my thinking/interpretations were and how they were evolving. Constant reflection on what I have seen and been told has therefore meant that ‘analysis’ has been, and is, on-going and that it isn’t something that only happens at the end when all the data is collected. Reflection during the data collection phase allows ideas to be followed up in next/future observations and discussions and if deemed to be helpful added to the ‘lens’ through which the research is being carried out. Specific examples of this were becoming aware of how each of the countries had examples of almost completely ‘hidden’ (to them) but common public spitting such as spitting around the edge of public swimming pools carried out by (those previously thought of as) ‘non-spitters’ as well as spitters, and seeing everyday public spitting, as found in China, as simply not heard/seen by both spitters and non-spitters alike in many cases, and then also considering why this is the case. My own views on spit and spitting have shifted meaningfully during the course of this research and as those views have shifted this has affected both how my observations have played out and interpretation of them.

Luck and serendipity

These are not the same although they can overlap. Some specific luck relates to the weather. I have no control over the weather at all (obviously) and although some planning could be done to avoid e.g. the rainy season in one region it is difficult marry up this in India with unproblematic weather in Malaysia or China.


It is difficult to relate exactly how lucky I was as poor weather could have potentially wiped out the whole trip or significant parts of it. I was however, very lucky: in Kuala Lumpur where I had only two opportunities to go out (the afternoon of the day I arrived and the afternoon of the following day – which followed a lecture at the University of Malaya and preceded me flying out early the next morning) on both days torrential lightning storms broke out just after we had finished our fieldwork for the day. Storms that flooded the streets of KL. In KL it had been raining every day for a number of days before I arrived and as related also did so whilst I was there. My fieldwork however was conducted in bright sunshine and cloudless skies! Jakarta / Indonesia was a similar tale except I had just one day to undertake fieldwork there but despite numerous days of rain preceding my arrival the sun was the only thing I saw in the sky. Similarly in Tokyo and Seoul – each day was clear and bright and in China, rain was only forecast for those days following the planned fieldwork (and again rain had been present on the days prior to my arrival) and that is how it worked out. I was very, very fortunate overall in this respect. Such a tight schedule really provided little leeway for weather inconveniences and in retrospect I should have thought about this more. I got away with it.

If the weather was one area in which I could only hope for some fortune another was around illness and travellers’ diarrhoea in particular. All you can do for this is try to minimise the risks and hope to avoid it – there are however, no guarantees. I have been lucky and avoided illness. All fieldwork has now been completed for each of the countries.

Again, although decent preparation (and perseverance – I really wanted those spicy King Pawns) no doubt helped I was also lucky to have avoided exposure that would have resulted in potentially huge disruption for the research.

Now what of serendipity?

Serendipity, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’ or as Wiki puts it ‘the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it’. This takes us full circle back to understanding the research process, preparation and how it is related to what you do and don’t do and how you do it.

In this research I arranged, through some helpful/supportive overseas (mostly) academic colleagues, for an English speaking ‘guide’ to help me in each city. In India of course I had the perfect advantage of being accompanied by Vivek who as a sociology academic and one with an interest in spitting gave me time, energy and collaboration. For the other sites however much more was uncertain. The’ quality’ of the arranged guides was unpredictable: how good would their English be; how well would they understand what I was trying to do and as such how well would they be able to help/facilitate me; how enthusiastic would they be when half way through a long hot day in the field; would they be easy to spend time with; did they just want the money; would they pull out at the last moment leaving me high and dry etc.? On each occasion, until I had met and spent time with a guide, this was an unknown.

Not only was I lucky in getting, in each case, a wonderfully enthusiastic individual (in Jakarta of course three enthusiastic individuals) but each location was enhanced by the contributions made by the guides/collaborators themselves. Each has in some way contributed to my developing interpretations / understanding of spitting in different countries. In each country this worked out unexpectedly well and in each case I was mostly reliant on the initiative and foresight of those that helped me from the construction of my various itineraries (different ones could have been chosen) to the insights and observations they also contributed (sometimes unknowingly) through long hot days in the field. I had not ‘relied’ on my guides as such and my fieldwork would have gone ahead regardless of whether they had been excellent or weak. I had prepared a process that would ensure data collection – I hadn’t however foreseen that I would be lucky enough to get such wonderful assistance that would bring genuine added value to the research (and to the research process and my trip through their friendly, supportive and helpful demeanour) and for that I am grateful to a slice of serendipitous fortune.