Chinese bathroom graffiti: intro

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Note: A version of this article appeared earlier on Tea Leaf Nation. Images and portions of the text here are re-used here with their permission.

The men’s room in the passenger station in Qujing, Yunnan Province will be familiar to anyone who has answered the call of nature in China’s innumerable other provincial bus stations.  Dim fluorescent lights give a clinical blue pallor to the bleary-eyed, fidgety travelers waiting their turn for the urinals and stalls lining either wall. The air is a haze of cigarette fumes and the smell a dizzying blend of human waste and smoke.  Mercifully, the stalls have porcelain Asian-style squat commodes and doors – more basic bathrooms just two latrines running along either wall with waist-high dividers for privacy.  Ensconced in one particular stall and preparing to assume the position, a traveler will pull the door shut and be greeted by the following message:

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“Overthrow the Communist Party! Join group number 537741 and rise up! We want fairness, justice, and democracy, and we oppose dictatorship and corruption!”

Above the message one can make out in large, faint script “Long live the Communist Party, long live Chairman Mao,” a pair of slogans from the Cultural Revolution which someone may have written in earnest or jest.  Below the message in a still different hand echoes a familiar gripe about China’s hated cheng guan, urban management enforcers better known for beating people up than maintaining order. There are other messages above and below the main text, some with lines drawn indicating they are meant in response to others, though much of them has been painted over or scrubbed into illegibility. The call to arms seems to be just one part of a lively conversation, which our hypothetical traveler could peruse at his leisure while attending to his primary task.

One summer day, I was that traveler, and since then I have been an avid consumer of Chinese bathroom graffiti.  For months I have entered every available stall in each public restroom I encounter, to observe and photograph the messages that are scrawled there.  It raises a few eyebrows among patrons and cleaning staff, but it’s worth it in pursuit of those questions inspired by the toilet door in Qujing – what are Chinese men writing about on bathroom walls? Just how common is dissenting political commentary?  What other ‘conversations’ might take place?

Bathroom graffiti arguably was social media before the term even existed.  The ability to communicate via the wall of a toilet stall shares a number of key traits with the Internet itself, namely anonymity and a low barrier to participation.  A lot of American bathroom graffiti sits alone on the wall to be appreciated in silence by countless viewers, but in its highest form it becomes a collective exercise that echoes an online message board.  An initial scrawled foul joke or lewd cartoon spawns a series of comments and follow-ups distinguishable only by color and handwriting. Like the American Internet itself, the content is often hateful or banal and the commentary mindless (think lone scribbled expletives and primitive drawings of genitalia), but occasionally can be sublimely crude, clever, or downright intellectual.  The actual American internet has done an admirable job of collecting and curating the best art and conversations found on toilet walls. To name just one personal example, over the course of pursuing a graduate degree I observed in the earth sciences building men’s room a heated debate play out over whether Jesus was a socialist.

Having discovered a politically-tinged echo of the above in Qujing, I entered my research wondering if I would find enough similar examples to establish a pattern, or even a subculture of dissent on China’s bathroom walls. The tantalizing narrative almost wrote itself: far from the watchful eyes of China’s online police state, a voice of freedom reaches out to the masses through a medium even the most sophisticated censors and firewalls cannot penetrate, and against which an underpaid janitor with a scrub pad and a paintbrush is a much less fearsome opponent.  Messages and comments didn’t have to be political, of course – I was fully anticipating the multitude of other topics guys might like to write about while relieving themselves, especially if – as with the Qujing stall – the content was too hot for China’s monitored Internet to handle.

I conducted most of my fieldwork in bus stations and truck stops, both because it meshed well with my travel schedule and because bus station bathroom walls are repainted less frequently than those in other places. I occasionally found examples in shopping malls and neighborhood public restrooms, but otherwise the bus stations dominated my sample.  In addition, 100% of my observations came from men’s restrooms, meaning any resulting analysis is necessarily gendered.  Both these facts diminish the representativeness of the results; men write messages in bus station bathrooms explicitly for other men that are just arriving, departing, or passing through.  The transient nature of the male audience probably influences the content of the graffiti, which helps explain why so much is on the outer limits of social acceptibility – no one is expecting to hang around to suffer the consequences.

Those caveats in place, it appears that Qujing’s bus station Democracy Wall was an outlier, and not just because other bathroom graffiti wasn’t political. Chinese men’s room walls do not lack for copious amounts of writing, but the content is vastly more commercial and transactional than its American counterparts. If American graffiti is like an online message board designed for its participants’ own entertainment, then Chinese graffiti is closer to a newspaper’s classified pages, with a bit of special advertising section thrown in for good measure.

The most distinguishing feature of Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti is that almost every piece of scrawled text is accompanied by the author’s contact information (usually a mobile phone number).   This was true even of the would-be revolutionaries in Qujing, who invited readers to join an online chat group (though, wouldn’t that be ill-advised given government monitoring of the Internet? Unless in a spectacular Orwellian twist, the Communist Party itself was leaving the messages to bait non-believers into the open.) This in turn reflects the fact that most graffiti proposes some kind of exchange, be it commercial, educational, sexual, or otherwise.  This differs from the US case, in which the interaction begins and ends with the wall itself.   In China the wall is the first step towards some further interaction that will yield mutual benefits to the reader and author – in this way Chinese graffiti arguably is even more social than its American counterpart.

Chinese graffiti is best viewed as an extension of China’s broader informal advertising subculture, in which barebones messages hawking services with mobile numbers are scrawled, pasted, and spray-painted onto public spaces all over the country.

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Residential stairwell, Shanghai
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Migrant worker barracks, Ningbo

Of course, bathrooms walls being bathroom walls, the content of the messages there tends to be more unsavory than the spray-painted ads you see in broad daylight.  Indeed, Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti is a veritable index of illegal and/or socially unacceptable behaviors in China – not the least of which is calling for the Communist Party’s overthrow.

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