|The history of spitting in the West|
|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/08/06 10:33 北京青年报|
After 12 years in China, I suppose I should be used to people spitting on the street, but I'm not. Nor are most other Westerners here. Nowadays spitting has disappeared in the other countries that I have visited, but historically things were different. In Canada, for instance: when I was young I saw men spitting in public areas outdoors, or in spittoons at home. Spitting was mostly associated with smoking, both denounced by women as bad habits. In fact, I have kept a souvenir of those days: a dark green hexagonal glass spittoon that is now a very original flowerpot. Spittoons were placed on the floor beside the rocking chair in the kitchen,①or even in the living room. They were used by older men who smoked or chewed tobacco. Every time I saw a spittoon, I felt sorry for the poor housewife who had to clean it out every day. I also remember that schoolboys would start to spit at the same age as they took to smoking on the sly, just to show what grown-ups and tough guys they were. But family and school were normally able to convince them that spitting was wrong, so in most cases they gave up the practice.
The spitting habit became the target of public health authorities after the discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus in 1882 by the German biologist Robert Koch. As saliva is one of the main vectors of infection and the tuberculosis bacillus can survive in spit for a whole day, spitting was outlawed in numerous countries. Signs forbidding the practice were put up in shops, theatres, taverns, parks, etc. Women were told not to wear long dresses in town, where trailing skirts might become soiled with spittle and bring tuberculosis home. All around the world, bulletins boards and newspapers carried warnings: "Don't spit for the sake of our children!" "Men, it's up to us! Spitting spreads disease, and women don't spit!" (Of course this is not the case in China.) "Beware of the careless spitter!"
In the European Middle Ages it was permitted to spit under the table, but never across it.②While standing, one could spit on the ground and immediately rub out the sputum with one's foot. But as early as the 15th century an anonymous French writer denounced this as "an indecency". The spitting habit was already being derided as filthy in works by the great Dutch humanist Erasmus in 1530 and by Giovanni Della Casa, the Italian writer on good manners, in 1558. Both considered the act boorish and uncivilized.
Spitting among the peasantry and the proletariat seemed more acceptable. Spitting on the floor in 19th-century factories, hospital waiting rooms and barber shops was tolerated. "Where do you want them to spit? In their pockets?" was the attitude; but domestic servants, tramway employees and shop assistants were instantly dismissed if they were caught spitting publicly.
Some people behave well only if there is a fine to pay if they don't. The French Hygiene Council issued the first publicsgroupsagainst spitting in 1886, followed by New York City with a strong ordinance in 1896. By 1916, 195 of 213 US cities had set rules. But rules have no effect if enforcement is lax and the population indifferent. In general, very few arrests for public spitting were made; policemen would not bother to impose fines for "so slight an offence". Instead signs playing on the psychology of spitters began to appear, e.g. "If you spit at home, you can do it here," or "Gentlemen will not, others must not spit on the floor."③In Britain, however, public spitting was still prevalent in the mid-1930s. Unlike in the United States (where spitting even inside the White House was extremely common for much of the 19th century) and several European countries, anti-tuberculosis campaigners had failed to have it made a legal offence.
So you see, the West has its own history of spitting, which it took time and effort to eradicate. But if Westerners were able to break themselves of the habit, why not the Chinese?
Have no doubt that public spitting does indeed influence how foreign visitors view the Chinese. There is even a website (www.wayan.netnexpnchinanspit.htm) where you can find a journal by a tourist whose memories of China were shaped by all the spitting. And at Harvard University there is a large sign that says: "Please do not spit; do not litter." It is posted only in Chinese!
I am not out④to mock the Chinese -- having lived here for 12 years, I sincerely love the country and the people. But how I wish that spitting would disappear overnight! And one thing is certain: it had better disappear from Beijing for good before the Olympic Games.
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