Spitting Culture in China

China’s spitting custom is probably one of the first things that many of us remember noticing when moving here. But why do some Chinese people insist on such an unpleasant habit?

Someone said the most horrible sound in the world is when a person gathers all their strength, concentrates on the throat and pushes the mucus that’s been stuck for half a day out from their mouth, making the ultimate and most satisfying release.

Everybody has a collection of hilarious spitting occurrences to tell: most commonly in the middle of a street, on the floor of a lamen restaurant, inside a KTV room, on or from a bus, in a movie theater, and most likely, on the very floor of the culprit’s living room. I also believe that by now, you won’t be so surprised to hear the hawking sound before turning around to see a well-dressed, charming 20-year-old girl making the lung oyster. Some Chinese are tolerant or perhaps careless about this annoying behavior, doing it spontaneously anywhere and everywhere without feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable.

They also don’t understand the western habit of blowing noses into tissues or hankies, then returning them to pockets like some treasured possession.

You may think that either Chinese people lack hygiene and manners, or that they simply don’t care about the community. This isn’t the case. They know that phlegm is bad—at least it looks so—therefore after spitting, they wipe it out with one foot. But what they haven’t considered, is that they are spreading germs everywhere.

It’s ironic to see so many spitting around Dongguan because after all, it’s been titled both “National Civilized City” and “National Sanitary City.” But what is a civilized city? Is there simply a line, that once you cross, it becomes the world of “uncivilization?” I would rather see it like a habit of a country. It takes a long time to form and equally, it will take a long time to eliminate.

I’m not the first person to make enough of a big deal of spitting to write an article about it. Ross Coomper, a British professor from Plymouth University, traveled to Asia to do research about it in 2013. He claimed that people should take historical and cultural influences into account before forming opinions about those who spit. He went on to explain that in many nations it was an accepted part of their lifestyle.

So, the disgusting act suddenly upgrades to a “lifestyle.”

Certainly, in the case of China, it has something to do with Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to TCM, phlegm is considered a toxin that needs to be removed. So, spitting the phlegm out is a healthy thing to do, just like sweating, especially when you are sick. “In China, many people view spitting as a cleansing action for the body,” Professor Coomper addressed.

To many Chinese, swallowing the booger—that’s the most disgusting thing to do. They also don’t understand the Western habit of blowing noses into tissues or hankies, then returning them to pockets like some treasured possession. To them, that is both unhygienic and pointless.

Professor Coomper also thinks that spitting and disease transmission is nothing more than an urban myth. “Exaggerated health risk claims as opposed to evidence based ones, are commonly used to bolster knee-jerk policies dealing with ‘deviant’ behavior that people would like to stop. Spitting appears no different in this respect,” he wrote in his blog.

Growing up with my grandma who would spit while she cooked, I can totally understand the urgency to get such a toxic thing out. I do believe that the younger and educated generation are doing it less and less. But I don’t feel ashamed for those who do it and I never despise them. The majority of Chinese were still struggling in poverty not long ago. And we don’t have to look far back in history to find spitting Europeans.