Spit for Thought–Part I

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Another new development in Beijing’s Olympic prepations. Again big headlines, big news: Beijing is launching a campaign to get people to stop spitting and form orderly lines. Yes, here we go again. Another year, another campaign against the spittists. This year’s version will feature fines of 50 yuan, as well less-punitive measures like “Queing Day,” a celebration of forming straight lines, which will be held near Tiananmen Square this Sunday.

When I first moved to Beijing ten years ago to study Chinese, my first encounter with Chinese/English signage was a plaque affixed to my dorm-room door which read “Don’t spit or litter everwhere.” I always wondered who was supposed to benefit from these instructions. Me, or my fastidiously ladylike Chinese roommate, who had been vetted extensively by the university to ascertain her suitability to live with a foreigner?

Anti-spitting campaigns are not just a phenonmenon of the last decade. They’ve often featured both in China’s interactions with foreigners and as part of broader campaigns for social control domestically. In the nineteen tens and twenties, Chinese college students living in New York set up schools for working class Chinese immigrants to teach hygiene, good-grooming and proper manners to their deficiently refined countrymen. The impulse to educate came from mixture of nationalism and insecurity. The exchange students, who mostly came from affluent backgrounds, hated that in the eyes of many Americans they were indistinguishable from the poorer, less-educated residents of Chinatown. If they could reform their uncouth brethren, the students reasoned, they’d face less discrimination themselves. Sound familiar?

Many of the students were also in the thrall of ideas in vogue in the early 20th century throughout the world about the power of hygiene and manners to lift morals and modernize nations. The YMCA was a big promoter of this kind of thing in China between the two World Wars and Chiang Kai-shek made them into a quasi-fascistic state creed in his New Life Movement of the 1930s, imposing fines for spitting and laws mandating skirt lengths to help “strengthen” China so it could get rid of the Japanese.

Mao was infamously unfond of fancy manners, so injunctions against spitting fell out of fashion during his years at the helm. But they’ve been back in various campaigns against “hooliganism” and for “civilization” since the end of the Cultural Revolution. In the 198Os Deng Xiaoping introduced anti-spitting rules in Beijing sent hundreds of thousands of health workers though the city to enforce them. Ironically, according to an article I just found in our bureau archives (which contains a fat folder on hygiene campaigns), Deng held himself above the law in this regard and kept a large spitoon near his chair in the Great Hall of the People.

Despite their clear lack of efficacy anti-spitting campaigns are a perrenial phenomenon. There was one for the Olympic bid (during the period when Beijing was also painting its grass green) and one during SARS this time with a medical spin among many others.

What’s amazing and I think disturbing is the grip this ideology still has on Chinese society and the extent to which it has survived for all of these year more or less intact. Even the social Darwinist language that suffused the edicts of the New Life movement in the 1930s still survives. “Much needs to be done to catch up with the civilization level of cities in major developed countries. We need to use all kind of means to regulate people’s daily behavior and guide people to develop the habit of unconditionally abiding by regulations,” urged a recent commentary in Shanghai’s Wenhui Daily.

Compare that with an article extolling the virtues of sputum-retentions in the 1980s:
“Efforts to eliminate spitting will not only clear the capital’s ground of phlegm, but purify people’s minds and raise the nation’s moral standards.”

I suppose you could look at these campaigns as mere sillyness or naivete. They are on some level probably the work of aging bureaucrats and propagandists charged with helping get ready for the Olympics and falling back on the tried-and-true because that’s all they know how to do. But I think there’s something more genuinely damaging going on. More on this in Spit for Thought Part II.