Voices from the Bottom Rung of Society
The Public Toilet Manager
Grandpa Zhou has handled human waste for almost all his life, first as an employee of the state in charge of cleaning public toilets and now as an independent toilet manager under contract with the city government of Chengdu to manage a large public toilet in the northwestern part of the city. “It’s serious business,” says Grandpa Zhou. He’s about seventy years old, but he looks pretty energetic.
I had known of Grandpa Zhou for quite some time. His toilet stands almost next door to my mother’s teahouse. But we were simply nodding acquaintances. One night I summoned up enough courage to get over my concerns about losing my social status as an intellectual and started a conversation with him.
Grandpa Zhou: Are you coming in to use the toilet or not? It’s already past midnight. Based on our rules I need to charge you extra. How else can I pay my taxes to the city’s Environment and Hygiene Department? But since you’re a regular client, I’ll waive the extra charge.
Liao Yiwu: I’m not here to use the toilet. I want to take you out for tea.
Zhou: You don’t have to bother. I’m only a public toilet guard.
Liao: Let’s go over to the teahouse, Grandpa Zhou.
Zhou: You’re too nice. Is your mom’s teahouse still open? Actually, the more her customers drink, the better for my business. When their bladders are full they come to my place. It’s mutually beneficial.
Liao: In this world there are rich people and poor people, aristocrats and common folks. But when it comes to the call of nature, everyone’s equal. Even the emperor has to take a shit.
Zhou: I’ve never seen a royal family member taking a shit. If they did, they wouldn’t come to do it in this public toilet.
Hey, you’re a writer, you like to collect material for your articles. Did you know there was an attempted murder here not long ago? About two weeks ago a guy was chasing a young woman and she ran into this toilet. I tried to stop the guy at the door but couldn’t. All the female squatters were startled and began to scream. I sent my son to break it up, but the man took a knife out of his pocket. Nobody dared move. The guy seized the young woman and was about to slash her face. She went to her knees, begging for mercy.
You know how in many public toilets the fertilizer companies put plastic containers near the urinals to collect urine? I grabbed one of those containers and splashed its contents all over the guy. That stopped him. He was soaked. Later on someone called the police and they took both the man and the woman away.
Guess what happened the next day? I saw the man and woman walking on the street, hugging and kissing like lovers. I tried to dodge them, but they came up to me. The guy pointed his finger at my nose: “You motherfucker, how dare you pour all that pee on me?”
I didn’t reply. He continued swearing at me: “You fucker, why didn’t you mind your own damn business? Look what you did. My whole body smells like piss.”
When I heard that, I lost it. “If I hadn’t poured the urine,” I said, “you’d have killed someone!”
Then—I couldn’t believe it—the woman started to defend him. “So what if he killed me? It had nothing to do with you. You’re the stinking public toilet manager. We’ve been dating for almost three years. He’s tried to kill me more than ten times, but I’ve survived. Why call the police? We got detained yesterday and our families had to bail us out. When they saw us, they all covered their noses. Our neighbors laughed at us. Nowadays, everyone in China talks about the rule of law. We’ve been traumatized. We’re going to sue you.”
My son was incensed and got into a terrible argument with them. He grabbed a copper ladle and was ready to fight. I tried to hold him back, but that bitch jumped out in the street and screamed murder. All hell broke loose. We got quite a crowd. What pissed me off was that the guy pointed at my son in front of the crowd and said, “Did you just use that ladle to stir up the shit in the latrine? You’re a born toilet cleaner. You even use a shit ladle as a murder weapon.” So insulting! That was no shit ladle. It was for cooking. My son threw it at them. The people in the crowd thought it was covered with shit and ran away as fast as they could.
Let me tell you, there’s never been any shortage of these scoundrels in our city. They don’t have jobs, they just hang out on the street and make trouble. This jerk I was telling you about still shows up at my toilet. He always taunts me: “Since you’re not too well off I won’t seek any economic compensation for what you did to me. In return for our kindness, why don’t you allow me and my girlfriend to use the toilet free for one year?”
Liao: He does sound like a jerk.
Zhou: Yeah, but I’m not mad anymore. What goes around comes around. I used to go out of my way to help people, sometimes people used to make fun of me and call me The Shit Samaritan. Well, it took me half a month to go through the various bureaucratic hoops before I could obtain the contract to run this bathroom. All I’m going to do from now on is guard the toilet and collect the entrance fee. In the future, even if someone falls into the latrine, I won’t pull him out.
If I was born ten years later I would never have thought to make a living in the toilet business. When I was young you didn’t have to pay to answer the call of nature. All public bathrooms were under the supervision of the municipal Environment and Hygiene Department. Later, the department assigned each public toilet to its nearby street committee. The street committee then asked the local residents to take care of the toilets themselves. In the end, nobody was taking responsibility for their maintenance and they got dirty. When it rained the street flooded with human waste, and even cars couldn’t get through. When the sun was out the human waste dried up, and the moist stink could bring tears to your eyes. There are still a couple free toilets like that in the city, in the old residential areas. But nowadays most public bathrooms have been renovated and it’s a good business.
As you know, houses built before the 1970s didn’t have indoor plumbing. People had to rely on public bathrooms. Sometimes they had to walk quite far. At night, families had to use chamber pots. Chamber pots painted in red were popular items for bridal showers or dowries. A sturdy chamber pot could last over ten years. Every morning, in the old days, families used to dump their chamber pots into the public toilets or wait for the human waste truck. Those trucks were more punctual than public buses. While waiting for the truck people chatted and caught up with each other over the day’s gossip. It was quite harmonious.
Liao: You sound nostalgic.
Zhou: Yes. I used to drive a human waste truck. Nobody looked down on me because I was handling shit. My clients called me Master Zhou. In those days, peasants didn’t have access to fertilizers, so human waste was precious. There were even people who stole shit from the latrines. Sometimes they would get caught and the street committee would detain their carts. People in that era had no sense of money. There was no such thing as a fine. All they wanted from those shit thieves was a soul-searching self-criticism. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s they would blame the capitalists for poisoning their minds and making them steal. The punishment for stealing human waste was to recite from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
Liao: Wasn’t that a bit much? Stealing shit wasn’t a serious crime, was it?
Zhou: China’s a socialist country. In theory everything belongs to the government. In the old days the waste we collected every morning was sent to a collective farm called the Red and Bright Commune, which was famous in our region because Chairman Mao had visited it in 1957. They were really proud of that and they displayed the plaque Mao had given them. Since the Red and Bright Commune was associated with Mao, and was used as a model for peasants in the rest of the country, we only sent them the top-quality human waste, to ensure bumper harvests each year. Each time we brought a shipment to the commune we’d beat drums and gongs and decorate the trucks with red flowers. When they saw our trucks approaching the peasants would hold large welcoming ceremonies. Many young students volunteered their time to help with the mission.
Liao: I did similar stuff when I was a kid. On weekends, we would pick horse manure off the street and donate it to the communes. Everybody was following Mao’s instructions to support agriculture.
Zhou: In our profession our role model was Shi Chuanxiang, who was elected as a representative to the National People’s Congress. He met Chairman Mao in person and had a picture taken with him. Everyone was excited that Mao would grant a toilet cleaner like him such a high honor. We all tried to emulate him.
Of course, we didn’t have toilet bowls then like we do today. The structure of the public bathroom was quite simple: a wooden platform with many holes in it was laid on top of a pit. The people squatted and relieved themselves through the holes. Every morning a tube drained the waste from the pit into the truck. One day the tube was blocked. When I went to investigate, I saw that a fetus had got stuck there.
Liao: That’s awful. Why didn’t the woman go to the abortion clinic?
Zhou: Young man, we’re talking about the 1970s. In the last decade people have become more relaxed about premarital sex. In those days, without a marriage certificate, a woman would never have had the guts to go to the hospital for an abortion. Premarital sex was considered extremely shameful. If her company found out, the woman’s career would be ruined. The stigma would stay with her the rest of her life. As a result, many girls would secretly procure medicine and the public toilet was like an abortion clinic, a dumping ground for dead fetuses. Some girls took the wrong medicine and died. In China, life is cheap.
Liao: I understand that in the 1960s, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, professors were forced to clean the public toilets.
Zhou: Many professors and scholars were labeled counterrevolutionaries, and yes, they were assigned to clean toilets. For people like me who did this for a living, we suddenly found ourselves with nothing to do. I wanted to work, but the students in Mao’s Red Guard wouldn’t allow it. I still got paid, but I ended up staying at home all day long, sleeping and goofing around. Since I was used to doing hard labor every day, I got really bored. Sometimes in the mornings and evenings I would sneak out to the toilet to coach the professors on their technique.
Considering how Chinese emperors slaughtered dissenting intellectuals in ancient times, I think Chairman Mao and the Communist Party were pretty merciful. Mao emphasized the importance of initiating mind reform and reeducating scholars. He ordered intellectuals to engage in hard labor and, at the same time, encouraged working-class people to read books. Reading books was easy for us working-class folks. We enrolled in literacy classes and took courses in history and politics. That was fun. But when you forced professors to clean toilets they considered it a huge loss of status. On the surface they acted as obedient as dogs. But many of them couldn’t take it and hanged themselves with their belts inside the toilet stalls.
People thought it was tragic whenever a professor died while cleaning a toilet. But I was born a toilet cleaner. If I have a sad life, nobody gives a damn. I think Confucius was right when he said: “All occupations are base. Only book learning is exalted.”
Liao: Your story triggers a lot of childhood memories. I still remember those big, spacious public bathrooms. I have to say, the public bathroom was my second classroom.
Zhou: What? You call the bathroom a classroom?
Liao: It was through a hole in the bathroom that I saw female private parts for the first time. It was shocking and exciting. From a drawing on the wall I learned about sexual intercourse. I couldn’t see the body clearly. There was just a sectional profile of a male and a female sexual organ stuck together. I was eight years old. The only thing we studied in school were the Chairman’s red books on the Communist revolution. I had never imagined that in Red China there were people who would draw such dirty pictures. I became indignant, took out my pencil, and wrote beside the picture: “This is two counterrevolutionaries doing bad stuff.”
Zhou: Were you one of those kids that does graffiti? That’s a bad habit. I just don’t understand it.
Liao: When I was in high school, I used to hate this girl whose name was Wang Xiaohong, because she was such a gossip. So I wrote on the bathroom wall: “Wang Xiaohong is a whore. She sleeps with evil capitalists.”
Zhou: You know, it takes me a long time to remove graffiti. It’s more difficult than sweeping the floors or even cleaning out the pit. And when I finally erase it, the minute I turn around new graffiti appears. Toilet graffiti has been in existence since ancient times. The only exception was during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards painted Communist slogans all over the place and didn’t leave enough room for graffiti artists. On the walls of the toilets they printed slogans like: Capitalists are as worthless as shit, or Counterrevolutionaries deserve to eat shit.
I’m semiliterate so I can’t understand much of what people write there. Most of the time the mere sight of graffiti makes me so mad that I don’t even bother to read it. There are limericks, dirty drawings, vulgar phrases, political slogans, and even paragraphs copied from published articles.
Liao: Those graffiti limericks were much more interesting than the ones we learned in school. I vividly remember one of them, “Love Songs from the Bathroom.” It goes like this: “You are a bird flying in the sky, I’m a cockroach, in shit I thrive. You are flying in circles in the clouds, I’m doing somersaults in the shitty pond.”
Zhou: You’re a well-educated person. Why do you memorize vulgar limericks like that?
Liao: Sorry to embarrass you. But think about it: There are well more than a billion people in China. Only a few can get their writings published in newspapers and magazines, and you need to go through rigorous reviews and various levels of censorship. By the time your article gets to the paper, it no longer resembles what you originally wrote. Many people will never have an opportunity to express themselves in public. That’s why the public bathrooms have become the venue for free speech.
Zhou: OK, I admit I saw a very funny one yesterday. It was a limerick to commemorate Chairman Mao. It’s pretty easy to remember. It went: “Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao, if you rise from your grave you will see embezzlers in raves. Chairman Mao, if you look to your right, hookers and druggies at your side. Chairman Mao, if you look to your left, fake goods are what you get. Chairman Mao, if you look behind your back, laid-off workers are deep in debt. Chairman Mao, if you look down, extramarital affairs are common. Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao, close your eyes, out of sight, out of mind. People want their iron rice bowls back.”
Liao: That sure captures the mood these days. But tell me, is your business good, Grandpa?
Zhou: Barely. Then again, so many people are unemployed here. I’m lucky to have a business, and for an old guy like me, managing toilets is easy work. But life is tough and tiring. All my nerves are strained. One of these days, one of the nerves will snap, and then I’ll be gone.