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Let’s talk about toilets

(This video is also on Bilibili:

The storyline of my first video was based on one passage from the Zhuangzi, but this time I’ve tried to tell a story based on several excerpts from different texts, focusing on the two anecdotes about Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324) in the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (A New Account of Tales of the World).[1] This fifth-century collection of gossip and anecdotes is a famous and beloved classical Chinese text. The anecdote about Wang Dun eating nose plugs comes from the section dedicated to mistakes made by eminent men. Some of them are not meant to make the reader laugh, but the one about Wang Dun is very amusing and relatable. After all, we all learn from our mistakes. As I mentioned in the short film, Wang Dun came from a prestigious family, yet he doesn’t seem to have been very familiar with all the fancy stuff that might show up in a bathroom. If he had not learned his lessons after marrying the princess, he would probably have been one of the guests who shied away from Wang Chong’s over-the-top bathroom.

In terms of gathering relevant material, actually the commentators of the Shishuo xinyu have done most of the work. I just rearranged the sequence of the incidents recorded therein. Unlike fiction and drama commentators in the late imperial periods who tend to say they are amused when they are, the commentators of the Shishuo xinyu hardly say, “This is so funny!” They sound very serious and write with a scholarly tone. However, from their seemingly serious presentation of material that makes things even funnier (and thus helped me develop the whole storyline), I’d like to believe they had a good sense of humour.

I also had great fun when visualising the narrative. Some of my questions about toilet culture have been resolved; some have not.

The structure of bathrooms can be reconstructed from burial architecture models. In museums, there are many of them especially from the Han dynasty (202 BCE -220 CE). It is very common to find the toilet built on an elevated floor that is connected to the pigsty on the ground level. The excerpts in the short film used the term ce 廁 for “toilet/bathroom,” as in modern Mandarin. But there’s also the lovely alternative term hun溷. The graph itself says it all: liquid next to a pig in an enclosure. There is evidence that this type of toilet was also found in the households of the upper class.[2] Thus the slope leading to Shi Chong’s bathroom, and the indistinct grunting sound of pigs when Liu Shi was working hard.

Drawings in Chen Siliang’s 陳斯亮 MA dissertation “Wei Jin Nanbeichao shiqi mingqi fanying de jianzhu tezheng yu wenhua yanjiu,” 魏晉南北朝時期明器反映的建築特徵與文化研究 (Xi’an: Xi’an Jianzhu Keji Daxue, 2004) based on two excavated models from the third century.

The toilet seat might come as a surprise as China seems to be known for the prevalence of squat latrines. However, archaeological findings have shown that some people chose the comfort of a sitting position as early as during the Han dynasty. Toilet stools have also been excavated. Of course, these were considered to be luxurious bathroom equipment and far less common than squat toilets.

The fascinating article about elite toilet culture during the Han dynasty by Yan Aimin and Zhao Lu was a great inspiration for my drawings for this video. They believe, for instance, that Shi Chong’s “toilet bed” is certainly not a squat latrine.[3] Therefore, I have my stone-rubbing style drawing of Le penseur in Shi Chong’s bathroom.

The earliest known Chinese toilet seat in the tomb of King Liangxiao’s queen, dating to the second century BCE. Photo and drawing published in the article by Yan Aimin and Zhao Lu.

The model of the toilet-pigsty unit from the Han dynasty in the Han Dynasty Stone Museum of Yulin. Photos published in the article by Yan Aimin and Zhao Lu.

It’s interesting that Yan Aimin and Zhao Lu believe Wang Dun went to a different bathroom to the one that terrified Liu Shi. An important reason is that the anecdote about Liu Shi mentions two handmaids, whereas the one about Wang Dun says a dozen. The authors of the article suggest Liu Shi went to a small bathroom attached to the bedroom, and Wang Dun went to a more luxurious and spacious standalone bathroom with fancy stuff, more servants, and a squat toilet. They haven’t explained, however, why the toilet in a spacious bathroom must be a squat toilet. Also, I’m not sure if a toilet bed connected to the pigsty is something desirable in the bedroom. Anyway, I have taken some liberties here again, and there are details in my short film that do not sit very well with the article.

Another mystery that I only realised when I prepared the video is the shape of zaodou 澡豆 (washing beans).[4] I always thought they were in the shape of small beans. However, looking at the instructions for making washing beans in medical texts such as the Qianjinfang 千金方, I see evidence suggesting they’re powdery stuff. There’s a lot of smashing and sifting, leading to a powder-like product (san 散). So the “bean” is the generic term and “washing beans” perhaps refers to an important ingredient of these type of products: ricebean (common beans, Phaseolus vulgaris) crumbs/paste (baidou xie 白豆屑/baidou mian 白豆麵). In any case, the solution of these “beans” might taste better than modern hand or facial wash.

[1] Ann Heirman and Mathieu Torck also translated these two excerpts alongside several Buddhist texts about toilet and sanitary rules; see their article “Toilet Care in Buddhist Monasteries: Health, Decency, and Ritual” in C. Pierce Salguero, ed. Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. This article also provides a list of very interesting further readings.

[2] For example, Hanshu records pigs running out from the toilet (possibly the toilet complex) in a king’s residence: 廁中豕群出. For a convenient reference:

[3] It is believed that Shi Chong was inspired by Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (156-87 BEC, ruling 141-87 BCE), who might have such a “toilet bed.” There is controversy about the key evidence behind the whole argument, which is a passage that could be read as Emperor Wu of Han having an audience with Wei Qing 衛青 (d. 106 BCE) on his toilet bed or by the side of his bed. The article by Yan Aimin and Zhao Lu supports the former, and presents a very interesting analysis of this incident, among other lavatory-related texts; see Yan Aimin 閆愛民 and Zhao Lu 趙璐, “Juce shi Wei Qing yu Handai guizu and denghun xiguan” “踞廁“視衛青與漢代貴族的“登溷”習慣, Nankai xuebao 南開學報, 2019(6): 146. [4] Heirman and Torck suggest the use of such products probably originated in India; see “Toilet Care in Buddhist Monasteries,” 139. #ShiShuoXinYu #世說新語 #ChineseToilet #廁所


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麍槑 山人
麍槑 山人
16 mai 2020

For a somewhat different, yet also highly amusing approach to the toilet topic see .

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