What's in a piss?
By Helen Wang, published
Ever had the feeling that there's a toilet scene in every Chinese story you read? Maram Epstein (Princeton) explains why...
The figure of the man or woman urinating is a common motif in Ming-Qing fiction. In one anecdote by Yuan Mei (1716-1798), a woman goes outside one night to empty her bladder and sets in motion a chain of events that ends with her own death. In Xia Jingqu's lengthy novel (1705-1787) Yesou puyan (A country codger's words of exposure), the male protagonist urinates on a corpse and brings the dead man back to life. The stark contrast between the effect of male and female urine in these roughly contemporaneous works of fiction exemplifies the different relationship between social order and the male and female body in the late-imperial Chinese narrative tradition. While urination scenes have been discussed either in terms of humor or as narrative interstice used to link scenes, these voluntary and involuntary discharges from the body also illustrate the impossibility of absolute self-containment. In symbolic terms, the individual body can serve as model for any bounded social system so that ruptures in its surface signal the breakdown of that system. As we shall see, the spectacle of the leaking female body is a particularly powerful symbol of transgression in the Chinese context, not only because a woman's urine evokes the possibility of menstruation and its dangerous polluting powers (Ahern 1975; Seaman 1974). More powerfully, the image undermines the ritual injunction to maintain a boundary between nei and wai, a pair of complementary terms that simultaneously refers to architectural boundaries between inner and outer and the social distinctions between private and public, by exposing the bodies of cloistered women to the reader's gaze and metonymically invoking female desire. As will become clear, urination frequently carries overtones of desire. In contrast, the image of a man urinating typically functions as a neutral structural link or, less frequently, initiates a positive event.