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Date Posted: 10:34 25/01/2004

Phlegm fatale

Spitting at the Queen

WHEN QUEEN Elizabeth made her first official visit to China in 1986, she was received by feisty little Deng Xiaoping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chief architect of China's rapprochment with the capitalist west. Faced with all the pomp and regalia of old European feudalism, Deng sought to send a message to the outside world, and so, as the Queen approached, Deng hawked violently into a strategically-placed spitoon. Her Majesty was suitably impressed.

However, spitting in China no longer has such good proletarian credentials. New regulations were put through by the Ministry of Health during the SARS outbreak last year in order to prevent citizens from spitting on the streets. The leadership is also concerned about the international reputation of Chinese people, especially when more and more of them are travelling abroad and expectorating on the Boulevard Champs Elysee. First time visitors to China frequently voice their horror as some old timer gathers up all his phlegm in a long slurp and then disgorges it in a shiny, black globule. It's the pollution, you see.
Things change, of course. The Greek philosopher and moralist, Diogenes, once wrote that 'in a rich man's house, there is no place to spit but in his face.' Spittoons were evidently not in common usage.

Norman Davies, in his history of Europe, tells us that in England in 1463, it was unacceptable to spit over or on the table, while around the same time in Germany, it was considered infra dig to spit across the table, evidently a trait displayed at the time by hunters. Erasmus, in 1530, tells readers to turn away when spitting, and that the spit should be trodden upon when it lands on the ground. By 1714, in Liege, if one had to spit, it had to be in one's handkerchief. In Lasalle in 1729, the handkerchief must then be folded without looking at it and then placed in the pocket.
By 1572, the previously acceptable practice of spitting on the ground before noblemen was now thought to be beyond the pale. By the nineteenth century, spitting of all kinds had become anathema in polite English society. The spitoon, once a common fixture in most households, was disappearing. Davies speculates that the spread of tuberculosis might have been responsible for the change in attitude.

And so, the spread of SARS in China was supposed to represent the end of spitting ('and other anti-social and anti-hygienic practices') in China. However, the habit is proving to be rather more resilient, mainly as a result of what sophisticated Chinese city dwellers call a 'lack of quality' in the suburban and rural populations.

You frequently see a taxi driver hawking up from his car window, despite the prospect of being fined. It was considered necessary to put anti-spitting signs on public transport in London well into the 1960s. Such signs are still visible in China today, usually surrounded by people, spitting.

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