Great Expectorations: Puke, Spitting, and Face

What’s the difference between puking and spitting? Is one involuntary and the other on purpose? Joel, at China Hope Live reports that maybe you see the difference differently if you’re Chinese or if you’re not.

His nicely argued piece,  Thinking Behind the Spitting takes off from an interchange between a Chinese language teacher and a class of North American students. The teacher explained:  “ means both ‘to spit’ and ‘to vomit,’ but if you change the tone — — you can say ‘to spit’ with a third meaning: spitting to show your contempt for someone.” The big distinction in her mind was voluntary vs. involuntary actions. Spitting is involuntary.

She was quite taken aback when her students explained that in their little culture, people controlled their spitting — what did they do, she asked, swallow it?

Spitting goes way back in the cross cultural dialogue. I recall hearing a friend of my parents retailing what I later found was a classic 19th century story:

An American to Chinese: “I hear that in your country you eat dogs.”

Chinese to an American: “I hear that in your country you blow your nose on a piece of cloth and put it in your pocket.”

Responsible authorities in China have long worried about losing “face” in front of the world community. In the 1930s the Nationalist government’s New Life Movement aimed, among other goals, to eliminate public spitting. Evidently they didn’t succeed in wiping out the habit as the following governments had a series of campaigns right down to the Olympics. Yet every meeting room that I went into in China had a large spittoon and people used them.

Someone should have warned the Chinese 1970s factory that made decks of playing cards intended for Americans to use in playing “poker.” They labeled the package with two pinyin syllables that most closely represented the Chinese pronunciation: “Puke.”

I wish that I had known about China Hope Live when I wrote my piece  “The Truth About Lies,” a review of Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics and Susan Blum’s Lies That Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths which looked at “face” and “lies.”

Joel has a bunch of insightful pieces, for instance “Chinese People Like it When You Lie to Them.”

Another sharp piece talks about Chinese national face and the Olympics, which includes a genial definition of “face” from Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People:

Face cannot be translated or defined. It is like honor and is not honor…. It is amenable, not to reason but to social convention. It protracts lawsuits, breaks up family fortunes, causes murders and suicides….  It is more powerful than fate or favor, and more respected than the constitution. It often decides a military victory or defeat, and can demolish a whole government ministry. It is that hollow thing which men in China live by. (195-196)

Shakespeare’s Falstaff asks “What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air.

Who’s right?

I’m not too worried, but maybe I’m too phlegmatic,


  1. Thanks for the nice words. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely confident posting that, since I’m just a student who’s far from having a firm grasp of the language, and it was based on just one conversation.

    But the mutual incredulity experienced in that class was just destined for the internet. What makes it all the more funny to me is that this teacher is in her late 20s, a university graduate, who has taught English-speaking foreigners one-on-one Mandarin for over 5 years and has lots of foreigner friends. It’s not every day we stumble on a cultural difference that she hasn’t heard before.

  2. “Mutual incredulity” — that’s beautifully put and I plan to use it (at least in conversation) as if it were my own!

    Your blog pieces also avoid the phrase “culture shock,” which I too distrust, and they instead say “culture stress.” I had hit upon “culture fatigue,” but maybe yours is better. In my experience, the flip out moment was less likely to come in the beginning, more likely to come after people thought they had settled in.

    Another little historical piece would be in order — did Marco Polo or Matteo Ricci suffer from culture shock/ fatigue/ stress? Don’t think so. Does culture “X” come from feeling superior, starting in the nineteenth century? Arthur Smith wrote a whole book about why Chinese are so obstinate in not becoming just like us.

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