Some of the thinking behind the spitting

A funny-in-an-appalling-sort-of-way conversation about spitting last week in Chinese class uncovered an interesting thought category difference between our Chinese teacher and her North American students. So without further ado, read on for some irresponsible speculation regarding a Chinese-North American category dispute and some stomach-churning subject matter!

Spitting in Chinese Class
There’ve been public campaigns to curb spitting since at least the 1950’s and especially in the run up to the Olympics. Spitting seems down compared to before the Olympics, but it’s still everywhere. The topic rarely comes up with our Chinese friends because it’s just not nice for foreigners to bring up embarrassing discussion topics. If this particular conversation hadn’t uncovered some (I think) interesting cultural differences, then I probably wouldn’t be writing about it. But I have a latent obnoxious streak, and when our teacher was teaching us how to use the verb “to spit/vomit,” I couldn’t resist jumping on the chance to ask questions about something we usually don’t ask about. The ensuing discussion turned into a revealing but maddening category dispute because it involved not just a difference in language and opinion regarding a somewhat sensitive topic, but also a difference in thought categories. I’m pretty sure my teacher was annoyed, but I sure learned a lot. :)

When introducing the verb “to spit” (吐) our teacher explained there are two ways to pronounce this word and each has a different meaning. She said means both “to spit” and “to vomit,” but if you change the tone — — you can say “to spit” with a third meaning: spitting to show your contempt for someone. The big distinction in her mind was voluntary vs. involuntary “spitting,” and that made sense to us until she separated horking lugies from spitting at people and put it together with puking:

吐 — to spit/vomit
Involuntary, physical necessity Deliberate
puking, horking, spitting to clear mouth (tù) spitting in contempt (tǔ)

I think this rubbed our fur backwards a little because the spitting is something that foreigners try to ignore but can’t accept; it’s embarrassing. I really wanted to find out what the deal was, especially considering that foreigners’ bodies don’t force them to spit, even though spitting is supposedly involuntary. So I asked.

To my teacher’s mind, puking and clearing your throat are more or less the same because “it’s something you do because your body is uncomfortable” and “you don’t choose to do it”; you just can’t help it (“没办法“). But spitting in contempt is different (and thus has a different pronunciation) “because it’s something you do on purpose.” We protested, but she countered with saying that horking and puking are basically the same — and seemed surprised that we didn’t find this plainly obvious.

The two Canadians and one Yank in the class couldn’t let it go just yet; we figured it’s kind of important to know how to distinguish between puking and spitting no matter what language you’re learning. They’re obviously fundamentally different physical actions, and her explanation — even though the language itself reflects it — made no sense to me. Puking is something you usually can’t help doing even when you want to, and it’s something you wouldn’t normally do on purpose, nevermind that it involves different parts of your body from spitting. But clearing your throat is almost always a choice; people have to deliberately work up a bunch of phlegm before letting it fly. Horking and spitting should be in the same category because (a) they are physically pretty much the same action, and (b) it’s almost always a voluntary action, whereas puking is a different physical action and you usually have no choice:

Wet stuff coming out of people’s mouths
Involuntary Deliberate
puking spitting, horking

We tried to object with most of that, but our teacher seemed surprised that we disagreed at all. So I asked her what people think when they see foreigners not spitting. She said most people assume that we spit, too, but that we just spit in private(!). I hadn’t thought of that. She was surprised and quite skeptical when I and my two classmates told her that aside from being really sick, we pretty much don’t spit. Once she saw that we were serious, she looked slightly alarmed and asked, “Well then what do you do?? Do you [makes a swallowing gesture]???” She was totally grossed out that we just swallow our regular daily spit (we explained that if we’re sick and coughing a lot of phlegm, we spit that out in the bathroom, but she was still disgusted at the amount of spit we swallow daily).

Going way overboard
Cross-cultural category disputes are interesting because they sometimes reflect differences in the deeper, often unconscious assumptions underlying our respective worldviews. For example, I most naturally — and I think reflects my own general cultural heritage — try to classify things according to what I perceive as their innate properties. Here we see the influence of science and individualism (self-definition). So with spitting and puking, I look exclusively at the biological aspect of the actions to determine their respective classifications. In this case, the what (food vs. saliva), why (involuntary vs. deliberate), and the how are all different. The social aspects of these actions didn’t even factor in.

My teacher also claimed to categorize according to the deliberate vs. involuntary distinction, and she probably honestly thinks this is what she’s done, though I think we can say that, objectively speaking, she hasn’t: horking is voluntary; puking is usually unavoidable. But her categorization makes sense according to a different criterion: spitting in a way that is socially/relationally irrelevant (puking, spitting to clear your throat), and spitting as a relationally relevant action (spitting to show your contempt for someone).

So since it’s fun to play with irresponsible intercultural speculation, I wonder if Chinese culture is in any way reflected in the way that spitting is divided into relationally relevant and relationally irrelevant actions (rather than categorized according to the innate physical properties/characteristics of each action), or whether that’s all just a stereotype-driven coincidence. Some people, like psychologist Richard Nisbett in the Geography of Thought, say that East Asians are generally culturally more predisposed to think about and define objects in terms of their relational context, while Westerners are more likely to define and categorize objects according to their perceived innate characteristics and properties. In this classroom experience, my teacher and her students happened to disagree along this line drawn by Nisbett.

This little anecdote isn’t near enough to go drawing conclusions about connections between this particular Chinese verb and potential underlying worldview predispositions. One anecdote is just an anecdote, and there is more than one Chinese verb for spit. But irresponsible cultural speculation is still fun to write some times. =)

So the short answer: Why is there so much spitting in China? Because a lot of people pretty much see it as a necessity, and the idea of swallowing all that spit is just gross!

33 thoughts on “Some of the thinking behind the spitting”

  1. Hey, thanks! Though to be honest, I wonder if I should have used “barfing” instead of “puking” – if just sounds more fun. I’ve also left a comment at Frog in a Well.

  2. I wonder how much of it is an actual cultural thing of China rather than one of sanitary concepts. If you took a New Yorker from the 1800s (it was very common to spit then), would you find the New Yorker with the same mindset?

  3. Sure, it could have nothing much to do with any sort of interesting cultural characteristic. There are major cultural/worldview background differences regarding how people think about the human body (see here, among others), but whether or not any of those differences are reflected in the spitting habits of Mainlanders, I can’t say.

    Too bad we can’t compare Industrial Revolution era spitting details with today’s Chinese spitting… though I can think of a lot of other research topics that would have higher priority on my to-do list.

  4. Joel, One of the other commentators lightly touched on this; personally, I believe the teacher was trying to save “face” in front of a class filled with foreigners. The most likely reason for spitting is ignorance. While the government will provide statistics that display a somewhat low illiteracy rate (considering the HUGE numbers involved here), I suspect that the real number is staggering – in the hundreds of millions. It’s a sophistication thing…..and the farther West one travels the more prominent this practice becomes. Good post.

  5. I agree with W.D. Box. I think the spitting comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding. Perhaps they are not aware of the germ/disease spreading element or perhaps they do not buy into it. That’s seems off though considering how many people walk around with masks and understand that precautions are beneficial with regard to what enters one’s body. There just isn’t the same understanding about what leaves one’s body.

  6. Good points that spit quotients differ as much within as between cultures: why do baseball players spit so much more than athletes in other sports? Football and soccer are also played outside.

  7. I thought spitting in sports had to do with chewing tobacco and Gatorade? We spat water all the time in hockey, but that’s because we didn’t want to barf on the ice.

    My first year college roommate was from a small Texas town, and he “dipped,” so that meant him and his buddies carried around empty pop cans to spit into. Seems an exceptional/minority situation, though.

  8. Parisitology – a reason for spitting.

    Many parasites; (from roundworms to hookworms and others) hatch in the intestines, burrow through the body (as juveniles) to the lungs, work their way up or get coughed up, and then reenter the digestive tract as adults ready to make more eggs – which come out in your stool. (naturally)

    These eggs are tiny and tough, most can survive boiling – they can be scatterd by the wind blowing across the the fields that’ve been fertilized with human or pig excrement.
    (very common in China, and almost any pig parasite can survive in humans too)

    Washing those raw vegetables well is crucial. (and you wondered why most people in China aren’t accustomed to eating salads.)

    The Hui minority doesn’t eat stuff that’s been grown in fields fertilized by those sources.

    Spitting can simply reduce your parasite load, keeping you healthy.

    Spitting: try it, it’s good for your body – even if it strains your psyche.

  9. Where on earth did you learn stuff like this?? =) I imagine this might be a factor behind the subconscious physical impulse to spit, but I have a hard time imagining any of the Mainlanders I know articulating it so clearly.

    So what you’re saying is… all this spitting is actually a healthy thing and Chinese people are full of parasites? =)

  10. Ummm… Parisitology class. Biology students get to take interesting classes like that.

    China was an agrarian economy up until some 5 decades ago- people who live in close proximity to pigs (the most common meat in China) and fertilize their fields with pig manure -get pig parasites.

    It can not have escaped your notice that few people in China eat raw vegetables.(though hotpot is delicious)
    Many times as a guest, I’ve been given a carefully peeled apple by the host. I wondered and asked, and was told it was a sign of respect,(knew that) and that the skin was unclean.(surprising!)

    Over time – (a long time) – people here noticed that those who ate raw foods got sick. Now, EVERYONE KNOWS that hot cooked food and hot drinks are what you should have. Chinese medicine, and centuries of medical advice all agree that this is unarguably, absolutly, unequivocally TRUE.

    (I’m shocked, just shocked that you are so backward that you didn’t know that.) :)

    You Philistine! (uncultured person)

    Fresh green salads are something that mostly only the younger generations will eat. It’s “Western”. (partly due to Pizza Hut and their salad bar)

    Traditionally, men eat only hot cooked food, and if there are leftovers from a previous meal, they are heated up as well, but the man doesn’t eat that – he eats the freshly cooked stuff. (Though there are LOTS of traditions in China, and I bet most people in Tianjin don’t follow this one at all – it’s more a NE tradition – as far as my meagre experience goes)

    To end with-
    If you REALLY want people to stare at you and think you’re crazy, put icecubes in your nice hot tea.(I hate burning my tounge)

  11. From my point of view, spitting is a terrible habit. For one thing, it is-entirely uncivilized. For another thing, spitting does great harm to public health.

  12. @huazai
    Only if I have bronchitis or pneumonia or some other really bad coughing disease. My teacher said lots of people here just assume that foreigners spit in private rather than public. She was reluctant to believe when we told her we just hardly ever spit.

  13. Hmm, I’m a tortured product of pressure from both cultures. I try not to spit in public and to a lesser degree try not to swallow while at home.

  14. Huazai – you’re swallowing all the time.

    I had my tonsils removed when I was about 10 years old – when you’ve had your tonsils cut out, you FEEL each time you swallow.

    Humans swallow around 2 times per minute. This swallowing is involuntary, and usually goes completely unnoticed.

    Unless you’ve got a gob of phlegm you’ve just coughed up in your mouth and you’re getting ready to spit it out, you are constantly swallowing your own saliva – (adult humans produce about 1 liter of saliva per day)

    “1 LITER???” I hear you laugh.
    “That’s impossible” I hear you say.

    It’s true. Try to go five minutes without swallowing – concentrate on not swallowing for five minutes. Put your fingers on your throat to feel it to make sure you don’t swallow involutarily. Your mouth will soon have lots of saliva in it.

    That saliva has lots of purposes: to keep your mouth moist – can you imagine if your gums dried out and cracked? The calcium in it helps rebuild weak spots in your teeth – and can build up as plaque that needs to be scraped off. It has enymes that help digest food. The constant flow washes away bacteria that could damge your teeth and gums if allowed to grow as they pleased. The lowered flow of saliva at night means that in the morning your mouth has higher bacteria levels, and your breath stinks.

    Every adult human in the world swallows about 1 liter of spit per day. Every Chinese person swallows about 1 liter of spit per day.

    What people spit out is phlegm or grit or something that they can feel – if people were spitting out ALL their saliva – they’d be spitting about 1 time per minute.

    I’ve never seen anybody spit that often.

  15. Out of curiosity… how do you decide what to spit out and what to swallow? Are there any guidelines your parents gave you when you were young?

  16. I don’t really remember my parents telling me what to and what not to spit. Generally for me, I don’t feel like swallowing the mucous I work up when I feel an itchy throat. I become used to swallowing it (most of the time :) ) for the public’s sake. But while in private, I sometimes use the sink/toilet.

  17. I don’t know whether this constitutes a cultural difference, in China spitting in public is considered vulgar and uncivilized – you won’t see educated ppl spit in public. So what you have seen often do not mean popular or good.

    But we spit at home – when my throat is uncomfortable. I can’t imagine that you swallow it even at home – why???

  18. I think I speak for most Americans/Canadians/Brits/etc. when I say we really do swallow almost always, at home. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I’ve seen. Unless we’re really sick with a really bad cough, then we swallow our spit. My throat isn’t uncomfortable unless I’m sick with a cold… definitely not every day or every week. I hope that’s not too gross! :)

    We also don’t deliberately ‘work up’ a lot spit. The first morning we lived with a Taiwanese family, I thought the mother had really bad food poisoning or something because we could hear her in another room clearing her throat and spitting so loudly (I didn’t know then about the Chinese spitting habit). When I think of people deliberately trying to make spit/phlegm, the first thing that comes to mind other than China is in elementary school, when little boys are trying to be gross on purpose just for fun.

  19. For this discussion it might be good to differentiate “spit” – a very generic word – into:
    (1) saliva (produced in the mouth by salivary glands)
    (2) mucus (produced in the nasal cavity – also called ‘snot’)
    (3) phlegm (mucus produced in the lungs)

    In my experience – and I worked on a grass seed farm during the summers for 5 years – if an American gets dust/sand or a mosquito or something from outside in their mouth – we spit it out immediately.

    If I’m outside in the US, and can do it discretely – I spit out mucus/phlegm – whether I have a cold or not.

    If I’m inside in the US – and it’s a big nasty wad of phlegm/mucus – I get up and go to the bathroom where I spit it into the toilet. If I have a cold, I spit out mucus/phlegm – always – reasoning that the job of the mucus is to trap the bacteria/virus and keep it from spreading – I don’t want it to spread inside me – to move from a runny nose to a sore throat or worse – so I spit it out.

    If it’s not big and nasty, and I don’t have a cold – or if I’m cooking and can’t leave the kitchen conveniently – or in the middle of a project I can’t leave – I swallow it.

    My reasoning is – my body produced it – it never left my body – it is relatively clean.

  20. LOL. Anyway, really trivial thing, but tu3 can be used for any voluntary form of spitting, like “tu3 chu1 lai2” for “spit that out” or “tu3 zi4” for “spit words” which describes how you enunciate. For example “ta1 tu3 zi4 hen3 qing1 chu3” means “he enunciates very clearly”, and stuff like that. Anyway, I’m no language expert, but just FYI.

  21. haha, no doubt this post is just as much about language students getting meanings “lost in translation” as it is about real cultural thought-category differences.

  22. I was interested in reading your article but couldn’t because your stupid share icons / widgets covered all the writing, epic fail

  23. I don’t know if anyone will read this at this point but I have heard, and even witnessed Asian men spitting in the presence of beautiful, especially blonde, women in order to attempt to rid their male minds of “impure” thoughts. I would love to know if anyone else can confirm this.

    1. I’ve never heard anything like that. I wonder which specific culture’s men it was referring to.

      Also, people gotta understand (DISCLAIMER!): this post was written by a China newbie language student, based on a single conversation with his Chinese teacher, and reflects more a newbie thinking out loud and trying to make sense of things than the opinion of someone who actually knows anything. First paragraph should tip everyone off to this, but you know how the internet is…

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