Going in China: A Guide to Local Toilets

Using China’s Toilets: A Step by Step Guide
By Nadine Cresswell-Myatt

A sign meaning a Western toilet in China.
A sign meaning a Western toilet in China. Most complaints from tourists in China are about the toilets!

The pandas at the breeding research base (Xiongmao Jidi) should have been the highlight of a trip to Chengdu but it was the white porcelain that held us transfixed.

A toilet beyond our wildest imaginings. It had a bidet, a dryer and even a bottom deodorizer.

I won’t say it was the highlight of our trip to China but it was photographed along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace. China transforms you into a connoisseur of loos.

For many Chinese it is our western toilets that are the subject of derision. When you squat Asian style (and a lifetime of squatting makes you an expert) it is more hygienic as nothing except your shoes touch the toilet. On a Western toilet a series of bottoms have touched the same seat. The Chinese considers this gross and it probably is.

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But westerners just aren’t accustomed to squat toilets where the rims are flush with the floor and there are grooved sections to place your feet.

Our hotel toilet in Chengdu--all I could do was laugh.
Our hotel toilet in Chengdu–all I could do was laugh.

There are just too many pitfalls to navigate: the art of squatting for a start, without falling over or even worse falling in and how to accomplish one’s task without splash back on one’s shoes or clothes.

Then of course, for the less agile amongst us, there is the attempt to stand up again without tripping over one’s undies.

Many lavatories in China don’t supply toilet paper. I guess if the population of China, some 1.3 billion individuals, were all to be stuffing toilet paper into their latrines all kinds of sewerage complications would arise.

Toilet Paper Goes in the Trash

When public toilets do occasionally have toilet paper people tend to take a single square, dab away, and then fold it discretely before depositing it in the cubicle’s waste paper basket. These are inevitably lidless and made of mesh. Learn from my mistakes and do not look inside.

Emergency toilets
Emergency toilets

In the past, particularly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, toilets were the downfall of the Chinese tourism industry with some tourists even labeling them as some of the scariest in the world.

So in the lead up to the Olympics there was a rush to build a smattering of western style toilets at tourist spots such as the Summer Palace, the Badaling section of the Great Wall and the Palace Museum.

Tourists who go rural, however, are likely to experience the dreaded Gonggongcesuo — the squatting over an open communal trough where privacy is not an option.

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As an interesting observation on history there is some anecdotal evidence; it was the Koumintang government that removed partition walls during the Civil War to prevent Communist Party members from exchanging information.

More than Toilet is a restaurant where you can sit and eat on toilets. Really!
More than Toilet is a restaurant where you can sit and eat on toilets. Really!

And you also take potluck with public toilets in the city where there will almost certainly be squats and perhaps even cubicles with half walls, or no doors.

In some ways this is sensible. After all door handles that have been touched by thousands of people carry germs so it is healthier not to have them. And it is only our Western notions of privacy that make us cringe.

The Chinese tourist authorities are aware of Westerners concerns. In fact apparently a third of all complaints received by the Beijing Tourism Administration were about toilets and since the mid ’90s millions of yuan has gone towards rectifying, or should that be westernizing, a number of latrines.

Tourist toilets now even feature star ratings and in Beijing there are seventy of these star rated toilets.

The one we encountered in Chengdu with all its myriad of pleasurable possibilities would have been five star and I suspect the one star toilets are not for the fainthearted.

While privacy is not normally an issue in the city you are bound to have an encounter with squat toilets. We found them in airports and in one of the local hotels in Chengdu that the airline put us up at when our flight was delayed. That squat is pictured below.

Because Chinese toilets are such a point of discussion amongst tourists they are even becoming a tourist attraction in themselves.

There is even a toilet themed restaurant in Shanghai, called More than Toilet, where patrons sit on unplumbed lavatories and eat their meals out of toilet shaped utensils. The miniature toilet bowls with piles of chocolate soft serve ice-cream that look like excrement but I am sure tastes divine.

A Toilet Primer for First Time Visitors:

Like most travelers China’s toilets fascinated me. All I can do to prepare you is to lift the lid on some basics that might help you in your search for the perfect porcelain bowl.

1. Carry some pocket issues or even some toilet paper with you. Yes, seriously.

Life doesnt get any better than this': a high tech throne with washing, drying and spraying your backside.
Life doesnt get any better than this: a high tech throne with washing, drying and spraying your backside.

2. It is also worth having a small bottle of hand sanitizer liquid and Wet Ones

3. Unless you are totally agile space out your day to use western styled toilets at your hotel and at major tourist attractions. It is known as preventative peeing.

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4. You will always find western style toilets in the chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds, hotel lobbies and in most tourist attractions but by no means all.

5. If you cannot use squat toilets then keep an eye open for disabled toilets that will have a full sized western style toilet or at least a frame. Sadly when it comes to using squat toilets westerners are disabled.

6. There is an app called SitorSquat (www.sitorsquat.com) that gives you the low-down on loos.

7. You will encounter squat toilets so it might be worth simply practising squatting and rising before you visit China. Squat toilets if clean are hygienic and the exercise is excellent for your thighs and sense of balance

8. Toilets for westerners are constantly cleaned hence the hovering attendants. Unsure if this is because of our standards or their view of our toileting habits. You will notice this in hotels and even on Chinese airlines. If you’d do find a western toilet seat that is dirty it is likely to be from shoes rather than anything else. (Go figure!)

9. It is not uncommon to have toilet doors without locks. Therefore you might want to take someone to stand guard for you.

10. Girls, if you see Chinese women rolling up the legs of their pants, when entering a cubicle, then it is wise to follow suit. Because you will encounter a squat it can be advantageous to wear skirts and to even take your undies off completely to navigate the squat position. As for men –“How I envy you.”

Nadine Cresswell-MyattNadine Cresswell-Myatt is a Melbourne based travel writers who has been writing for over 20years. Her work has appeared in a wide range of print and online media both at home and overseas.