Shanghai Stank: Night Soil Business in Modern Shanghai
written by Chieko Nakajima (Assumption College, Worcester)
Annotation: This study examines changes in human waste disposal management in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Shanghai. Human waste was a significant commodity that connected the city with the countryside; its use as a fertilizer helped urban sanitation and agricultural productivity. Through a close look at efforts made by Western colonizers and Chinese authorities, this study argues that Shanghai’s sanitation reform depended on and helped develop the traditional night soil trade.
Production and Disposal of Human Waste
Over the course of history throughout the world, human-waste-disposal methods have varied dramatically; yet, historians have rarely addressed this important subject systematically. Feces production is a daily event for all living beings, but ordinarily we seldom discuss our excreta except in a medical context. Today, our bodily waste is flushed away in the toilet almost immediately after it is produced and we do not even have to see it. In civilized society, talking about feces is considered rude and vulgar — most of the time we pretend that it does not exist. Urbanites in Republican China had a very different perspective. They were accustomed to living in close proximity to waste and Chinese cities stank. Since most commoners and laborers had no sanitary facilities at home, city people used chamber pots at home or frequented public toilets. Since women were not supposed to expose their private parts in public, they usually used chamber pots. In contrast, men often used outside toilets and habitually relieved themselves on the streets.1 In particular, public toilets were scarce in northern China and it was neither embarrassing nor offensive for men to urinate or defecate in public. In Beijing, residential neighborhoods often had “reserved” lots in which male residents relieved themselves. These lots served as a venue for socialization; while men squatted and defecated, they even greeted each other and chatted. Since such practice was common in Beijing, those who were not used to this were regarded as outsiders.2
Human waste was not only highly visible—it was a valuable fertilizer that was widely used in East Asia and a subject of commercial transaction until the late-twentieth century. Properly processed, seemingly worthless human feces could be transformed into an organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer that restores depleted soil and increases agricultural production. Fairly well-organized business arrangements for collecting, selling, and processing human feces were common in many Chinese cities and towns since the Ming period (1368–1644). Peasants and farmers in the suburbs visited cities from time to time to purchase night soil directly from city residents. Because it was thought that urbanites had access to good food and ate well, it was expected that their excreta produced particularly rich fertilizer with nitrogen. Since it was precious, waste was even called “gold.”3 The use of human waste as manure not only helped urban sanitation but also provided an efficient means to recover and reuse resources. As time progressed, occupational groups that specialized in night soil commerce emerged in large cities and served as intermediates between peasants and city residents. Usually owners of night soil carts (糞車 fenche) hired night soil collectors (糞夫 fenfu); these workers collected excreta from private homes, public latrines, and off the street; then, they transported their haul to designated depots. In the south, they sold human waste directly to peasants and farmers. In the north,owners of manure plants (糞廠 fenchang) purchased and processed it. Since there were no regulations or official supervision, waste disposal was conducted in an irregular manner. The price of night soil constantly fluctuated in relation to market demands. In sum, many Chinese cities had a laissez-faire waste disposal system, and there was a stable supply-and-demand equilibrium.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with economic and industrial development, Chinese cities attracted a large number of immigrants, sojourners, and other transient populations. As urban populations grew, human-waste production increased accordingly. It was not long before waste disposal became a serious sanitation problem. City streets were filled with filth and the air reeked with the stench. Meanwhile, as China was exposed to Western influence, Westerners and Chinese elites introduced public health administration and city planning to China. Following the Western model, they launched urban reforms, sanitation being one of their serious concerns. Chinese elites and Westerners alike came to view “dirty” and “odorous” Chinese as a sign of China’s moral inferiority and strove to make cities cleaner. Waste disposal was not just a personal matter; it had become an issue of public health and national pride.
Yet, poor urban sanitation was not unique to China. European cities during the Industrial Revolution were also dirty and filled with excreta. City people did not have toilets at home, and they dumped their waste onto dunghills or washed it away in rivers. Poor sanitation was an urban problem, not just a Chinese problem. However, city planners in Europe and China adopted different strategies to handle human waste. While administrators in European cities built massive sewer systems and installed drainage pipes in houses and buildings to dispose waste, their counterparts in China retained the traditional way of waste collection. The Chinese did not have adequate financial and technical resources to construct sewage networks. Moreover, the use of feces as fertilizer was a well-established system. It was a significant part of the large ecological and commercial network that connected cities and the countryside. It also involved multiple parties and provided jobs. The basic night soil disposal system— manually removing ordure from houses, public toilets, and cesspools, transporting it to the countryside, and using it as a fertilizer—endured until the late twentieth century…(to continue reading, please go to our Proceedings from the 8th Annual Czech and Slovak Sinological Conference available for free in iPDF)
1 Lu Hanchao 1999, 452–454.
2 Qiu 2011, 452–454,
3 Yong, 2005.