Are Chinese Toilets Really That Bad?

Word of the week: xí shǒu jiān

Sit down or squat down? That’s the big choice you’re faced with when nature calls in China.

I remember the first time I spoke any Chinese. I had memorised how to ask where the toilet is. I opted for 洗手间 xí shǒu jiān which literally translates as “wash hand room” and is politer, a bit like when Americans ask for the “restroom”. After the place you’re looking for you just add 在哪里 zài ná lǐ (literally “at where”) to enquire about its location.

xí shǒu jiān zài ná lǐ  (hand wash room at where/ where is the restroom)

There are other options instead of restroom. You can ask for the 厕所 cè suǒ which is perhaps a bit more like saying “toilet”. Again, just add zài ná lǐ to ask where it is.

chinese toilet

you need to be brave to do a google image search for ‘Chinese toilet’

Both xí shǒu jiān and cè suǒ refer to the room that you do your business in. In Chinese gōng gòng cè suǒ (pubic toilets) you sometimes have a choice as to whether you use a 马桶 má tǒng or a 茅坑 máo kēng. A má tǒng is a western style toilet that you sit down on. A máo kēng is basically a hole a hole in the ground that you squat over. From my experience in the countryside this was just a hole that has been dug in the ground with a plank of wood to shit on so it doesn’t splash up when it hits the sewage.


a girl gets her arm stuck while trying to fish her phone out of a mao keng

Whether your experience of máo kēng is a pleasant one or not, it is part of one of my favourite Chinese idioms: 拉不出屎嫌茅坑臭 chū shǐ xián máo kēng chòu. This literally means “when you can’t take a shit you complain that the toilet stinks” but is used to mean “a bad workman blames his tools”.

Although it can seem like a less civilised way to go about doing your bathroom business I actually prefer the squat down máo kēng over the western style má tǒng in Chinese public toilets. This is because Chinese toilets are often so disgustingly dirty that a máo kēng at least offers you the option of doing what you have to do without actually touching anything. Of course, in the comfort of my own clean home it’s a different story; I much prefer to take a leisurely dump whilst sitting down on a má tǒng.