Beijing’s public toilets are incredible. There are more public bathrooms than you could imagine. Go around any corner, it seems, and you are greeted by one of the ubiquitous little beige colored toilet buildings. Most of them are nothing special, but that is what I like about them. When you need to go, they’ve got what you need to get the job done. I feel at ease when I’m walking around the city, no matter the volume of liquid I’ve consumed, because I know that I’m not at risk of suddenly having to desperately search for a place to pee. This is no joke. Beijing’s toilets are a great civic amenity.
The history of communal toilets in Beijing goes back centuries. Traditional courtyard houses were usually designed for four households who shared a toilet. The toilets were cleaned and emptied by the “Cleaning Guild” who sold the wastes to the “Excreta Commercial Guild”. The Excreta Commercial Guild sold the waste wholesale to farmers for manure. This cyclical system of waste management, where waste from communal toilets was sold to farmers to grow crops for residents who then created more excreta, persisted, essentially unchanged, into the 1960s.
During the Cultural Revolution, the courtyard toilets were moved to adjacent streets. The traditional single-family courtyard house was seen as a bourgeois institution, and moving the bathroom made way for increased housing density in the house’s central courtyards. For the communist party, the new communal neighborhood toilet became a potent symbol for the working class and communal living. In speeches, Chairman Mao would tell anecdotes about Shi Chaun-Xiang, a lavatory maintenance worker who had dedicated his life to cleaning restrooms on some of Beijing’s busiest streets, to illustrate the humble virtues of Chinese laborers.
Today, there are over 6,000 public toilets in Beijing. In the old part of the city, most homes do not have access to water or sewage utilities. There, the neighborhood toilet is just as important as its always been. The toilets are cleaned at least twice a day, and the excreta is collected in septic tanks which are serviced by special trucks. New buildings are required to provide running water and at least one toilet per unit. At the rapid pace that Beijing is developing, the communal neighborhood toilet is at risk of becoming a thing of the past.
To preserve the role of the toilet in Chinese public life, the city has been remodeling toilets by tricking them out with features such as WiFi, electric vehicle charging stations, flat screen TVs, and vending machines. The futuristic bathrooms are being marketed as “fifth-spaces”, which (after home, work, recreational and cyberspace) will be important places in people’s everyday lives. The WC signs are being replaced with a “5” as part of the rebranding campaign.
You can almost tell the significance of a place by the quality of the toilets nearby. I recently visited Tiananmen Square’s bathroom. I was amazed to see that the toilet was managed by a small army of attendants. No sooner had I zipped up my fly than a uniformed man with a mop swooped in to make sure that I had left everything in order and tidy up for the next person.
I really enjoy the design of the toilet buildings. The simple buildings have a certain austere functional charm. They make use of natural light, they are well ventilated, and every bathroom has its own character. They are usually located exactly where they should be, where alleyways intersect with busy streets, which makes them easy to find. I wish I had time to visit them all.
I was initially surprised by how truly public the toilets are. Often, there are no walls separating the squat toilets. This creates opportunities to literally rub elbows with your neighbors. I’ve seen it – friends squatting side-by-side, telling jokes and gossiping. Also, The entrances often open onto busy streets and the insides are semi-visible from the sidewalk. In some toilets, passersby can kind of see you going to the bathroom. The lack of privacy sounds unpleasant, but I kind of like it. I feel safe knowing that there are people nearby that would help me if anything goes wrong. Once, upon entering a bathroom I encountered a completely naked man standing at the sink. I felt comfortable brushing past him to get to the urinal because I knew that the collective gaze of the street had my back. Beijing’s public toilets are much better than what you often find in America – bathrooms located far away from any pedestrian activity where it feels like weird stuff could be lurking behind any stall door.
American cities could learn a thing or two from Beijing’s toilets. Most American cities are woefully ill-equipped to handle people’s basic bathrooms needs. Who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly realizing that you have to go to the bathroom and not being able to find a place to go? It happens to me all of the time. I am usually able to sneak into a restaurant or find a bush, but for people with more complicated bathroom needs than me (e.g. people with disabilities, families with small children, the elderly, homeless people, etc..) not having bathrooms could be a serious barrier to enjoying public space.
Good cities should have plenty of bathrooms – because everyone pees. When I was a child, I was taught a rhyme to help me remember to go to the bathroom before long car trips. “It can happen to a he. It can happen to a she. But you never really know, when you’ll really have to pee.” It is a great piece of wisdom for 7-year-olds and urban planners alike. Don’t take bathrooms for granted, because they are not always there when you need them. Beijing’s got this issue figured out.
Interesting Bathroom Resources:
Geisler, T. (2000). On Public Toilets in Beijing. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 53(4), 216-219.
Kitsuka, K; Et Al. (2007). Survey on Development and Management System of Public Toilets in Beijing -Case Studies in Dongsi and Xianyukou Areas-. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 6(2), 315 – 322.