China’s Original Social Media: Bathroom Graffiti

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.

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 have been 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.

I conducted most of my fieldwork in bus stations and truck stops, both because it meshed well with my travel habits and because bus station bathroom walls are repainted less frequently than those in other places. I occasionally found examples in shopping malls and neighborhood public restrooms, but otherwise the bus stations dominated my sample. Upon observing my photographs, some Chinese friends commented on seeing similar graffiti in their university dorms and classroom buildings, but those settings were beyond my scope. In addition, one hundred percent of my observations came from men’s restrooms, meaning any resulting analysis is necessarily gendered. Both these facts diminished the representativeness of the results; the messages written in bus station bathrooms were explicitly by men, for other men, and the audience was transient, either just arriving, departing, or passing through. The transient nature of the male audience probably helps explain why so much of the content is on the outer limits of social acceptability—no one plans to hang around and suffer the consequences.

With those caveats in mind, what I discovered was this: Qujing’s bus station Democracy Wall was an outlier, and not just because of its political bent. The walls of men’s rooms in China do not lack for writing, but the content is vastly more commercial and transactional than its American counterparts. If American graffiti resembles an online message board, designed for its participants’ entertainment, then Chinese graffiti more closely resembles a newspaper’s classified pages, with a special advertising section thrown in for good measure.

The most distinguishing feature of the Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti I encountered was that almost every piece of scrawled text was accompanied by the author’s contact information (usually a mobile phone number). This was true even of the would-be revolutionaries in Qujing, who invited readers to join an online chat group. Most graffiti proposed some kind of exchange, be it commercial, educational, sexual, or otherwise. Unlike in the U.S., where the wall is an interaction unto itself, bathroom graffiti in China is the first step towards some further interaction that will benefit both the reader and author—in this way, Chinese graffiti is even more social than its American counterpart. Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti is best viewed as an extension of China’s broader informal advertising subculture, in which bare-bones messages hawking services with mobile numbers are scrawled, pasted, and spray-painted onto public spaces all over the country.

Of course, bathrooms walls being bathroom walls, the content of the messages there tends to be more unsavory than the spray-painted ads you see in broad daylight. Indeed, Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti is a veritable index of illegal and socially unacceptable behaviors in China—not the least of which is calling for the Communist Party’s overthrow. While not as outright lewd as some American graffiti, Chinese bathroom graffiti does carry on the tradition of expressing things best left unspoken in polite conversation.