The men’s room in the passenger station in Qujing, Yunnan province will be familiar to anyone who has answered the call of nature in one of China’s provincial bus stations. Dim fluorescent lights give a clinical blue pallor to the bleary-eyed, fidgety travelers waiting their turn for the urinals and stalls lining either wall. The air is a haze of cigarette fumes, and the smell a dizzying blend of waste and smoke. Mercifully, the stalls have porcelain Asian-style squat commodes and doors—more basic bathrooms just have two latrines running along either wall with waist-high dividers for privacy. Ensconced in one particular stall and preparing to assume the squatting position, a traveler will pull the door shut and be greeted by the following message:
Overthrow the Communist Party! Join [online messenger QQ] group [number obscured by editors] and rise up! We want fairness, justice, and democracy, and we oppose dictatorship and corruption!
Above the message one can make out in large, faint script “Long live the Communist Party, long live Chairman Mao,” a pair of slogans from the Cultural Revolution which someone may have written in earnest or jest. Below, a sentence in a still different hand echoes a familiar gripe about China’s hated chengguan, urban management enforcers better known for beating people than maintaining order. There are other messages above and below the anti-government text, some with lines drawn indicating they are responses to other notes, though many of them have been painted over or scrubbed into illegibility. The call to arms is just one part of a lively conversation that a hypothetical traveler could peruse at his leisure while attending to his primary task.
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One summer day, I was that traveler, and ever since I have been an avid consumer of Chinese bathroom graffiti. This summer I have checked every available stall in each public restroom I’ve entered to read and photograph the messages that are scrawled there. The click of my camera phone has raised a few eyebrows among patrons and cleaning staff, but I have persevered in order to answer those questions inspired by the toilet door in Qujing—what are Chinese men writing about on bathroom walls? Just how common is dissenting political commentary? What other "conversations" are taking place?
Bathroom graffiti can be argued to be social media before the term even existed. As a mode of communication, it shares a number of key traits with the Internet, namely anonymity and low barriers to participation. American graffiti is often no more than an isolated statement or squiggle, but in its highest form, it becomes a collective exercise that echoes an online message board. The first scrawled foul joke or lewd cartoon inspires someone to add a comment or edit to the original piece, which then draws further responses. The result is a “thread” of contributions distinguishable only by writing utensil and handwriting. Like the American Internet itself, the content is often vulgar or banal (think lone scribbled expletives and primitive drawings of genitalia), but occasionally sublimely crude, clever, or downright intellectual.
Having discovered a politically-tinged echo of the above in Qujing’s wall of grievances, I began my research, wondering if I would find enough similar examples to establish a pattern, or even a subculture of dissent on China’s bathroom walls. I did not expect to encounter only political messages, of course— I fully anticipated men might choose to write about a multitude of other topics while relieving themselves, especially if—as with the Qujing stall—the content was too hot for China’s monitored Internet to handle.