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Going to the Toilet in Tang Dynasty China

The secret lives of the privies and toilets of Tang Dynasty China.

Poor people might do it in the streets or in any convenient location out of the way of the traffic, of prying eyes and the reach of officialdom. Visitors to modern China (and indeed many other countries) will notice the same situation exists in the twenty-first century. In the cities, pressure on space means that large numbers of people have to share common facilities such as cooking spaces and toilets and bathrooms, such as they are. A designated caretaker (or janitor) may be in charge of the facility but, given the number of people involved, hygiene may always be a problem.

The situation was different, at least to some extent, for the rich and the nobles in Tang Dynasty China. The house of the rich would consist of a series of linked courtyards, with numerous freestanding and connected rooms for different purposes. Each wife would expect her own area, for example, while servants attached to individuals within the overall household also needed their own quarters. In addition, a sign of taste and sophistication was the provision of outdoor privies. Located within the walls of the compound, yet presumably at a distance from places where the smell might be noticeable, the privies were small wooden-walled enclosures which hid a pit with a place to stand and, perhaps, a lid to hide the smell and sight of that left by those who had gone before. Dried jujubes were often stuffed in each nostril prior to entry so as to minimize the problems of the smell but this must have been unpleasant (if customary). Perhaps in some cases servants were available to waft pleasant aromas and nosegays around to make the experience less inconvenient.

The pit had to be cleaned on a more or less regular basis and it was a job for a certain class of people. It was also a task that might be assigned to the apprentice of a monk, as it was considered that the duty was a good way to teach humility (and probably rapid spade work) in the young men concerned. The pits were also considered a suitable place for disposing of unwanted items – assassins are said to have stashed the heads of their victims in such pits since they were aware of the unwillingness of city authorities to search through them too thoroughly.

Privies had their own goddess, who was known as the Purple Maiden. Originally she seems to have been the rather unfortunate second wife of an official who attracted the jealousy or wrath of the first wife who decided to dispose of her by pushing her into the privy pit while husband was away. In due course, representatives of heaven noticed the injustice and raised her to divine status. Prudent people remembered her on the appropriate days and provided prayers and offerings so that they might not come to the same sticky end and that all their toilet-related business pass, so to speak, smoothly.

It was considered prudent to shine torches into privies on certain days to ensure any and all ghosts were scared out of them. They got everywhere.

For more details on this subject and many others related to life in Tang Dynasty China, please see Charles Benn’s China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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