Thursday, November 14, 2013

[Invited Seminar] Material Civilization and Hygienic Modernity: Reflections on Toilet Practices in Rural South China

Gonçalo SANTOS 
Assistant Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong
Material Civilization and Hygienic Modernity: Reflections on Toilet Practices in Rural South China 
8 November 2013 

Fieldwork in China
When anthropologists firstly go into the field, one of the most important issues is to figure out where to go to the toilet. Gonçalo Santos, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, recently gave a fascinating talk about people's toilet practices in rural south China based on his field work in Yingde, Guangdong Province from 1999 to 2001.

Local urine buckets vs. 'advanced' toilet arrangements
-- the local flush toilet
When he began his fieldwork, families were mostly going to the surrounding field or to public latrines which are far away from the living quarters or using buckets. A few families had begun to build the "modern" style private toilet and bathroom inside the house.  It seemed that people chose where to go to the toilet based on the development of technology. However, according to Dr. Santos's observation, even families with a "modern" flushing toilet keep on using the indoor-buckets and even the public latrines. The main reason initially was the value of human waste as  effective fertilizer. Even after they stopped using nightsoil as fertilizer, many villagers said that using indoor-buckets rather than flushing is much cheaper, more convenient, and uses less water. Without a proper sewage system, many bathrooms flooded because of excess water flowing into the septic system. Dr. Santos argued that technological choices are not independent from the social relationships and cultural values, but are socially and culturally constructed. The reason for the popularity of flushing toilet is not how efficient the technology is, but how it becomes a symbol of modernity in the villagers' imagination.
Local septic system

Reviewed by 
JIANG Yan (Echo)
M.Phil. Candidate

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