Travel Preparation

Toilets in China

While people may tell you outrageous stories about using toilets in China, they have come a long way in the past decade. China's major tourist sights almost all have new toilets and an attendant who practically lives there to keep them clean.

Public toilets are readily accessible in pretty much all of China, and they’re almost always free of any cost.

new public toilet

That said, you can come across some primitive situations. You should carry tissues with you, as free toilet paper is not the norm outside five-star hotels. When you are on the road, if you can ask your guide to keep a lookout for good toilets then they can usually find you a good option.

A toilet beside the road in Tibet
A toilet beside the road in Tibet

Chinese-Style Toilets

Chinese toilets are normally the squat style, which admittedly takes some getting used to but on the other hand, you don't touch anything, and you don’t have to cover the toilet with paper before you can sit down. Surprisingly, using squat toilets may be beneficial to your health.

Hotels all have western toilets, as do most shopping malls, but expect a few squat toilets in the latter.

This situation is slowly changing, and some public restrooms in the big cities do have at least one western style toilet, and even toilet paper and soap. However, a large majority of them only have a waist-high shoddy divider to give restroom users some privacy. Some of them lack these frames and have no separations between them. There’s only a row of squat toilets, and that’s it. Most Chinese people in big cities won’t flinch an eye if you come in and use the squat toilet right next to them. Nevertheless, be ready to receive some stares if you’re in a smaller city or town where Chinese people don’t get to see foreigners too often. If you really can’t go with others around, just wait until the restroom is empty. Or find some courage, and experience China not like a tourist, but like a hardened and seasoned traveler.

Squat toilets have also been installed in countries where they weren’t traditionally used, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, where squat toilets were introduced in a shopping mall; so there’s a small chance your experience while visiting China can help you in other parts of the world later on.

You will notice there are marked differences between China and western countries. We must keep an open mind to experience new things, even if they might seem strange to us or even make us a bit uncomfortable at first. To be on the safer side when traveling in China, it’s advisable to always bring paper tissues and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

How to Spot a Public Toilet in China

You will want to know how to recognize which toilet is for your sex and how to read the characters "public toilet". You don't have to be able to read Chinese - it is pattern recognition. Stare at the male and female a while, or copy them repeatedly on paper. Carry them with you and look at them while waiting in a line.

sign of public toilet

sex sign for Chinese public toilets
Learning the Chinese character for women (女) and men (男) will help you avoid funny mistakes

Don’t hesitate to ask a Chinese person if you are unsure which restroom to use. Even if they don’t speak English, they may be willing to help you. (Tip: point at yourself, then point at the bathroom).

Another great thing is that Chinese restrooms are clearly signaled. "Gong ce" literally translates as "public toilet". You might see it on a signpost at an intersection or the side of a building. There are plenty of public toilets in Beijing if you keep your eyes open for signs like the one below.

Star-rated Public Toilets

Toilets in China vary greatly, which is probably why the government has started rating them with stars and handing out awards. I've never seen any awarded less than three stars — one and two-star toilets don't seem to get labeled.

One of the requirements for public restrooms to receive a top rating is to have toilet paper. So wherever you see a triple star restroom, your chances of finding toilet paper will be quite high.

four-star rated public toilet in China

Toilet Revolution

Many parts of China are still developing, which means that the type and cleanliness of the toilets aren’t completely uniform either. But overall, public toilets easy to find, conveniently located, free and readily available.

The Chinese government is also working hard to improve the quality levels of the restrooms in the country. China will invest 290 billion into tourism over the next four years, and one of their goals is to upgrade 100,000 public toilets. The government has called this plan the "toilet revolution".

According to the "toilet revolution", at least 34,000 new public restrooms will be built and another 23,000 will be renovated in Beijing by the end of 2017.

Foreign tourists accounted for nearly 11 percent of economic growth in 2015, and it's expected that by 2020 the total tourism spending for services will reach 1 trillion, which explains why China concedes so much importance to the toilet revolution.

Better toilets mean a much better experience for tourists.

Toilet revolutions aren't a new thing in China since one of the first ones took place in Beijing in the 1960s. Now, the Chinese capital has some of the most advanced restrooms in the country, including one equipped with personal TVs, charging stations, Wi-Fi, ATMs and cello music. As you can imagine, this particular restroom became a tourist attraction on its own.

Another famous toilet in Beijing releases 60 centimeters of toilet paper to visitors after they have stood in front of a high-definition camera for three seconds, without hats or glasses.

The Temple of Heaven's facial recognition software prevents visitors from trying to get more toilet paper than what they need. Anyone who wants an extra 60 centimeters of toilet paper should wait for nine minutes to get it.

Both the Temple of Heaven's toilets and the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing's Olympic Green have face recognition toilet paper dispensers. The machines’ objective is to curb paper waste and they seem to be doing their job quite effectively, as paper waste has been reduced 70 percent at the Temple of Heaven since the software's introduction.

Some other public toilets lack the technology, but have an out of the ordinary shape, just like the ladybug shaped restroom found in Beijing’s Chaoyang Park.

Shanghai has also stepped up its restroom game by opening its first gender-neutral public toilet.

China isn't alone when it comes to improving public restrooms. Toilet Tourism is actually a thing and countries can get awarded based on their toilet's quality.

Fun fact: November 19th is World Toilets Day

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