National Hero

Choose your staff

You have just left school. You need career advice. May we recommend you consider entering the shit business? It’s a career with a long and noble history. In 15th-century Tudor England, the Groom of the Stool position – which involved attending to the king while he toileted – was reserved for the noblest aristocrats. In the 19th century, when excrement had not become the shameful substance it is today, sanitarians and sewage doctors – who devised schemes to deal with sewage – were unashamed and prized. Don’t heed sewage workers who say that revealing their job makes people take two steps back. Because if you do decide to venture into shit, you will be in classy company. Karl Marx, Rudyard Kipling and Anton Chekhov all took an interest in excrement, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, declared that sanitation was more important than independence.

National hero illus 1They come at all times of day, in all shapes and ages. They come to read the newspaper, listen to music, take one of the complimentary condoms. Sometimes they also use the facilities, because this is Toilet 29 in Shanghai’s Zhabei District, run by Li Ying, probably China’s most famous toilet attendant.

China’s respect for shit also applies to the people who work with it.

Of all nations, the Chinese are probably the most at home with their excrement. This makes them fecal-philiac, in anthropological terms, while most industrialized nations have become fecal-phobic. Excrement has been used on Chinese fields for 4,000 years; there are toilet goddesses in the Chinese pantheon; and Beijing’s biggest bookstore has a whole shelf devoted to Toilet Culture. China’s respect for shit also applies to the people who work with it. In 1959, Shi Chuanxiang, who worked as a collector of “night soil” from household chamber pots, gave a public address at the Communist Party’s National Conference of Heroes, a great honor. Fifty years later, Li, who immigrated to Shanghai from the countryside aged 17, won the May 1st Labor Medal, one of the highest awards a Chinese worker can receive. She was also the first rural immigrant in Shanghai to be granted residence status in the city, for her public service in the toilet. Li is proud of the prizes, of course, but also of her toilet. “Sometimes people walk on tiptoe after we have cleaned because they don’t want to make it dirty. I clean this place so well, people think it’s a hotel.”


From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.