Studies in Scat: Excerpts from Yu Hua, Zhu Wen and Li Er

By Cindy M. Carter, published July 20, 2007, 10:15a.m.

Back in 1990, long before I had even begun studying Chinese, I remember Chalmers Johnson - in an undergraduate politics class about revolution, of all things - commenting that "the Chinese have a very scatological sense of humour." At the time, I had no reference point, no way of assessing the veracity of his claim, so I chalked it up to the amiable ramblings of a brilliant professor lulled to boredom by sleepy undergraduates, San Diego's balmy clime and the interminable weight of tenure.

Now, 17 years later, I find myself working on three excerpts by three very different Chinese authors - Yu Hua, Zhu Wen and Li Er - that have inspired me to revisit Chalmers Johnson's observation. In each of these passages, feces plays a starring role. While I'm in no mood to make generalizations about scatology or humour in China, this is marvelous excuse to introduce translations from a few favorite authors.

Yu Hua's Brothers

Protagonist Li ("Baldy") Guangtou sits atop his gold-plated toilet dreaming of his impending voyage into space on a Russian civilian shuttle and remembering his youth. Oh, the hazy crazy days of peeping at female asses through the partition of a public toilet...

Zhu Wen's What is Love and What is Garbage:

On the worst day of his life, protagonist Xiao Ding finds himself (1) the laughingstock of bar hostesses (2) a refugee who flees a bar only to enter the most ungodly toilet imaginable (3) a man without a shred of toilet paper (4) the butt of a prank by an unkind stranger standing at the urinals. On days like this, you might as well just call it quits...

Li Er's Truth and Variations:

While some might see Doctor Bai as a freak or a fetishist, he is in fact an expert in all things excremental: a scholar of shit, a doyen of dung, a professor of piddle, piss and poop. We say this with all due respect to his academic background, interests and credentials.

Excerpt from Yu Hua's Brothers (Volume One):

Guangtou ("Baldy") Li, the wealthiest scion of our little village, sat upon his celebrated gold-plated toilet - a piece of plumbing every bit as famed, defamed and infamous as its owner - and dreamed of his impending journey into space, courtesy of a Russian space shuttle and a passage booked in excess of 20 million US dollars. Closing his eyes, he imagined himself in orbit around the earth: his meteoric rise, the unfathomable emptiness all around, a planet seen from what lofty heights, the slow unfurling of a horizon. And yet he couldn't help but feel a sense of desolation, for at that moment he knew himself to be friendless on this planet, horribly and utterly alone.

He had once had a brother, a half-sibling named Song Gang, upon whom he depended like life itself. A year older and a head taller than Baldy, Song Gang had been considerate and honest, yet unyielding and stubborn. When he died three years ago, he'd been transformed into a pile of ash and bone that could be contained in a tiny wooden box. Baldy Li could never think of that tiny box of ash and bone without calling up a myriad of conflicting emotions. It occurred to him that if you burned a small sapling, it would leave behind a bigger pile of ash than Song Gang.

While Baldy's mother was still alive, she liked to say to him, "Like father, like son." Of course, she was referring to Song Gang, her loyal, kind-hearted stepson. She used to say that Song Gang was exactly like his father, her second husband, and that the pair of them were like two melons grown from the same vine. She never used this phrase when talking about Baldy. Instead, she would simply shake her head and say that Baldy and his father were two entirely different people, travelers who walked two separate roads. That is, until the year Baldy turned fourteen and was apprehended in a public toilet, caught in the act of peeping at the asses of five women. After that, his mother's attitude underwent a complete reversal. At long last, she realized that Baldy and his father were in fact two melons grown from the same vine. He could still remember clearly how his mother had averted her gaze in horror, how she had turned her back on him in sorrow, how she had wiped the tears from her eyes and mumbled: "Like father, like son. Like father, like son..."

Baldy had never met his biological father. On the day he was born, his biological father had departed this world in a cloud of stink, a stench of notoriety. All his mother would say was that his father had drowned. Each time he asked how his father had died (Had he drowned in a river or in a pond? Or had he fallen to his death in a well?) his mother maintained her silence. It was only after Baldy was apprehended in a public restroom, caught red-handed peeping at the asses of five women through the partition of a communal toilet and thus made the locus of local gossip (or a sex scandal, in the current parlance), that he finally discovered that he and his father were two stink melons from the same vine. It seems that his father had suffered a similar fate, but with deadlier consequences: while peeping at some female ass on the other side of the partition, he had fallen into the septic pit and drowned.

Nowadays, the world abounds with nude women, and the naked bodies and bare asses of women. You can see them shaking their asses on TV and in the movies, in the weekly pictorials and adverts, on VCD and DVD, on the ballpoint pens we use to write and on the lighters we use to light our cigarettes. There are asses of most every type: domestic and imported, black and white, yellow and brown, big and small, fat and thin, rough and smooth, old and young, real and fake. Today we enjoy a virtual cornucopia of naked ass, a feast for the eyes, too many bare bottoms to take in all at once. Naked female asses are a dime a dozen; you can hardly rub your eyes without seeing one, sneeze without bumping into one or turn a corner without trampling over one. And yet it didn't always used to be this way. Once upon a time, the naked female ass was a priceless commodity, worth its weight in silver or in gold, a treasure beyond compare. The only way to catch a glimpse was to peep in public restrooms, and so we find young perverts like Li Guangtou (caught red-handed in the act of peeping), or old perverts like his father (who lost his life in a peeping-related incident).

Back then, communal toilets weren't separated like they are now. Nowadays, you'd be lucky to catch a glimpse of female public-toilet ass even with a periscope. But back in the day, male and female toilets were separated only by a thin partition, and they shared the same septic pit, the same communal pool of shit...

Excerpt from Li Er's Truth and Variations

Chapter: Studies in Shite

To be frank, when I first began reading Dr. Bai Shengtao's autobiography, I found myself perplexed; the good doctor seemed to raise the subject of excrement at every turn. Did he have some sort of fetish or fixation? Was the man a freak, I wondered, or was he simply vulgar? Later, I realized that I had sorely misjudged him. Doctor Bai was in fact a scholar of shite, an expert in all things excremental. You might say that his interest in piss and poo was purely professional.

As we've mentioned earlier, Dr. Bai studied medicine in Beijing under the tutelage of one Dr. Kawata, a Japanese professor and physician who was himself an expert in the field of excrement. Dr. Yu Chengze, currently a doctoral candidate faculty advisor at Shanghai University of Medicine and a former classmate of Dr. Bai, remembers Bai Shengtao as the most assiduous student in the class, and a particular favorite of Professor Kawata. In a column entitled "Notable Anecdotes" published in the 1993 (Volume no. 5) edition of the magazine "Schools of Medicine", we find the following recollection:

Bai Shengtao entered medical school rather late in life, and so was several years older than the rest of us. At that time, Dr. Kawata had just arrived at our school to teach an undergraduate course. Prior to that, he had been - like Lu Hsun - a pupil of Dr. Fujino Genkuro at Sendai Medical College. But Bai Shengtao and Lu Hsun had had completely different temperaments. Kawata always had a bohemian air about him; these days, we'd probably call his type a "hippie".

Shit was a recurring theme in Dr. Kawata's lectures. He began his curriculum with an exegesis on infant feces, a substance he claimed to be "marvelous, just marvelous". He would stand at the lectern, a wad of infant feces in his hands...now kneading it, now rolling it into a lump, and finally dividing it into two tight round balls. Because infant feces was pale yellow in color, the resulting twins bore a striking resemblance a pair of miniature "nashi" pears. As he lectured, Dr. Kawata would toss the balls of shit into the air and catch them again, making circles like a juggler or a magician performing conjuring tricks. Once, he called the entire class to the front of the lecture hall to examine the balls of shit more closely. He invited all of the students, male and female alike, to touch and pat them to examine their consistency, smell them to examine their odor. Even more shocking, he actually encouraged us to taste them, to sample their flavor and consistency. As the female students recoiled in horror, stepping back and covering their faces with their hands, Dr. Kawata suddenly - perhaps to serve as a positive example to the rest of us - popped a bit of feces into his mouth and began to chew as if it were a piece of bubble gum. He even stuck his tongue out to show us the sticky paste it left upon his tongue. I remember that Bai Shengtao was the first student among us to volunteer to taste it. Without a doubt, he was always the first to sacrifice himself in the quest for truth. He was the first student in our graduating class to travel to the USSR and later, the first to join the Communist base camp in Yen'an. He could just as easily have not gone to Yen'an, for he had already established a practice for himself at a private medical clinic in Shanghai. When he later dropped out of sight, we all assumed he'd become a martyr for the cause (sic).

Dr. Kawata later explained that he was not trying to give us a hard time. He simply wanted us to become familiar with the most intimate secrets and hidden functions of the human body. Feces, urine, pus, phlegm, blood and cerebrospinal fluid were products of normal physiological and chemical reactions, he told us. By observing them, we could better understand the mental and physical state of our patients. "In your lifetime, each of you will urinate over ten thousand times and produce over thirty tonnes of feces." At this point in the lecture, someone in the class burst out laughing, but Dr. Kawata chided us that it was no laughing matter. As doctors, he said, we needed to understand these things and be able to read their signs, just as master carpenters must be able to identify and read different types of wood grains. In the days and weeks that followed, we acquired all manner of useful knowledge about excrement. Under Dr. Kawata's tutelage, we also garnered some feces-related ecclesiastical wisdom that we certainly wouldn't have learned from our Chinese professors. Once Professor Kawata asked the class who believed in god, and not one student raised his hand. Singling out Bai Shengtao, he asked, "But didn't you used to serve in a church?" So it was that we learned that our classmate had once been employed as a servant boy in a Christian parish. Doctor Kawata told us that western physicians believed god had imbued feces with certain miraculous healing powers, and that this belief had been borne out by experience, proven through careful scientific experiment. Horse dung, for example, was known to cure meningitis; pig dung provided a clotting factor for the blood; human feces could help repair trauma and revive the circulation; donkey dung was a sure cure for bloody diarrhea; cow dung combined with an infusion of rose petals was an effective treatment for epilepsy and childhood seizures. Influenced by Doctor Kawata's lectures, we began to employ feces as a daily, catch-all metaphor for all that ailed us. For example, if we disagreed with one of our classmates during a discussion about a life-saving procedure, we might say, "Seeing as your head is full of shit, the first step is to make an incision, drain it and fashion a toilet-style tourniquet..."

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