Why does the nation squat, and not sit, when using the John?
A few years ago, I was standing with an American friend in a Shanghai office building, waiting for a meeting to start. Suddenly, my friend turned to me with a worried expression on her face and asked if the bathrooms had “Western” lavatories or “Chinese” ones, the latter referring to the squat toilets found in most of the country’s bathrooms. When I replied that I didn’t know, she furrowed her brow even more deeply. “I have squatting phobia,” she said.
Going to the toilet in China can be a grueling experience. Besides the lack of toilet paper, overpowering odors, and the somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward personal privacy, the need to squat instead of sit frequently poses a challenge to foreign visitors hurrying to answer the call of nature.
It’s a question that’s puzzled many outsiders over the years: Why do many Chinese people squat on their heels when they go to the toilet, while people from other countries, especially Western ones, perch atop a toilet bowl?
It is likely that the most primitive form of a toilet was nothing more than a hole dug into the ground, over which people would squat. In China, the character ce, which today appears in the word for “toilet,” has existed for at least 2,000 years. However, in many regions in ancient China, this character also meant “pigsty,” and with good reason: Toilets in these regions would be built next to pigpens, and human waste would slide down a tunnel into the sty for the pigs to eat. This practice can still be seen in certain parts of rural China today.