Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Matter of Feces, Not Face

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 11, 2009

As China rises to become a global economic power, there is a pressing market demand for a new generation of sinologists. But a mere knowledge of Mandarin and some classical Confucius teachings is the old school approach—it’s basic, but not meticulously sophisticated enough to comprehend the very profundity of the Middle Kingdom psyche. But recently I’ve discovered a new sinologist whose erudition opens a new frontier in the field. This new scholar’s treasure of insights comes, most curiously, from a Chinese toilet.

Rose George’s book, “The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste,” includes a chapter devoted to the study of the social economy of China’s biogas. She introduces—most professionally—“fen,” the Mandarin word for excrement, and points out that the Chinese are probably the most at home with their excrement because of its value in fertilizing fields. George’s intelligent observation puts me into some sentimental stitches, as I remember the old days visiting my grandmother in Hangzhou, when they still collected “night soil” every night. As a pro-colonial brat spoiled by the marvels of the flush toilet, that evil gadget invented by Victorian-era Britain, I stubbornly refused to inhale the genuine odor of the motherland by refusing to use the bathroom for more than a week at a time. Sometimes this was impossible to withstand and a wooden bucket would be brought into my grandmother’s bedroom for the final relief and redemption of an un-filial son.

George’s book provides a new dimension of understanding of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. When so many traditional sinologists resort to clichés such as, “they are a people who care deeply about face,” George dares to look China in the feces and rake out stories so far unheard of in the west. In the Communist era, for example, excrement took on political significance. Chairman Mao launched the “Seas of Shit, Mountains of Fertilizer Campaign” in his home province of Hunan, ordering his countrymen to collect as much human night soil as possible, all in contribution to “The Great Leap Forward”—an ambitious nationwide economic program with the goal of raising the country’s GDP to surpass Britain’s within 15 years. In 1959, the excrement collector Shi Chuanxiang became a national hero for out-collecting his allotted quota.

George has clearly done her homework, and it’s an excellent move to introduce the long-forgotten Shi. What she didn’t mention though, is that poor Shi met his tragic downfall in the political purges. As a star speaker at the Party’s National Conference of Heroes, Shi had the honor of being received by then-Chairman of the State, Liu Shaoqi. They shared a proud handshake and the picture was applauded as a model triumph of communism—who could imagine the Queen shaking hands with a manure-carrier in Buckingham Palace? That proud moment lasted only a few years, as Liu was soon branded a traitor and “China’s Khrushchev” by Mao. Shi was accused of being a close associate of Liu and vilified as the “Shit Monster.” He was beaten to death by the Red Guards.

It takes a lifetime to become a real sinologist. A professional China hand has to dig deep from time to time into some dark and undesirable memories—often an unamusing job. And you must be absolutely sure to spell the great Chinese names right, such as Deng Xiaoping, paying careful attention not to blasphemously misspell the surname as “Dung.”

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