Excreted, Left Untreated

Histories of Human and Other Waste in Pre-Modern China
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room B

  • Organised by Roel Sterckx
  • Roel Sterckx, “Fertilising Fields and Hearts: Human and Animal Waste in Warring States, Qin, and Han Texts”
  • Armin Selbitschka, “Human Waste in Early China: An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Natalie Koehle, “An Epistemic Shift in Diagnostic Practice? Examination of Excrements in Yuan Chinese Medicine”
  • Joerg Henning Huesemann, “’Treasure Manure Like Gold’—Nightsoil in Ming–Qing Agriculture”

In China, “every substance convertible to manure is diligently husbanded”, wrote Sir John Francis Davis in The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and its Inhabitants (London: 1840). Reference to human and animal waste in China goes back as far as the Shang oracle bone inscriptions. While some historians have discussed the treatment of nightsoil and human waste in the late imperial and modern age, the physical and social history of human and animal excrement and the archaeology of sanitation in pre-modern China have received scant attention. This panel proposes to examine how people in pre-modern China conceived of excretion and waste. We will discuss ‘what gets left behind’ in material and textual sources and explore the dynamics of what appeared as ‘unwanted’ or ‘wanted’. We will do so from various angles including material and social history, moral and religious narrative, and agricultural and medical discourse. Each paper zooms in on a different time period and/or set of sources ranging from early China, through to the Yuan, Ming, and Qing.

Roel Sterckx, “Fertilising Fields and Hearts: Human and Animal Waste in Warring States, Qin, and Han Texts”

Early Chinese texts contain several stories and metaphors identifying the latrine and excrement with the lower domains of human morality. According to the opening passage of his biography in Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 Historical Records (Shiji 史記), Li Si 李斯, the later chancellor to China’s First Emperor, was so disgusted at the sight of rats eating the filth in the privy of the clerk’s quarters where he served during his youth, that it inspired him to become an adept administrator and chief planner. The privy was a liminal space where contact with waste could soil a person’s social reputation. Defecation or the handling of faeces could make the body vulnerable to demonic influences. On the other hand, excrement also figured as a substance associated with growth and fertility. This paper examines attitudes towards human and animal excrement in texts of the Warring States, Qin and Han periods against their documented use in religious practices, agriculture and medicine.

Armin Selbitschka, “Human Waste in Early China: An Archaeological Perspective

By and large, scholars of early China do not seem to be too keen on speaking about faeces. Apart from brief discussions of the medicinal uses of (human) excrements in Traditional Chinese Medicine and fleeting references to their apotropaic functions, scholarship remains largely silent on the issue. At first glance, that is all too understandable. On the one hand, faeces may appear repulsive to most observers. On the other, they literally are (human) waste, and as such either flushed down the sewer or buried in the ground.
However, since archaeology is the science of digging up remnants of human life, it might offer a more nuanced perspective. Thus, by analysing excavated latrines and model privies yielded by early imperial Chinese tombs (ca. 2nd c. BCE–3rd c. CE) in concert with some received literature, I will argue that we would do excrements a great disservice by assuming that they lost all meaning once they were discharged. Quite the contrary was true. The archaeological record shows that faeces, much like today, fulfilled a vital role in the production of food in early China.

Natalie Koehle, “An Epistemic Shift in Diagnostic Practice? Examination of Excrements in Yuan Chinese Medicine

If you wanted to know what’s going on inside your body, where would you look?
Bodily discharges seem like an obvious place. Hippocrates and Galen routinely scrutinised sputa, stool and urine, and by and large, these practices still appear to make sense to us today. But the intuition to search for signs of physiological processes in bodily outflows is not universal. Classical Chinese doctors paid scant attention to the appearance of excrement. Its sensory qualities, as perceived by sight, smell, and structure of bodily discharges outside of the body, were first described in 1327, in a treatise on phlegm. Many concepts and practices in this treatise, composed by the Daoist recluse Wang Gui 王珪 (1264–1354), were entirely unprecedented in Chinese medicine. At the same time, they resembled core concepts and practices of Greco-Islamic medicine.
This paper will analyse Wang Gui’s conceptual and diagnostic innovations. It will situate them in the context of contemporary Chinese medical debates and compare them to similar practices in Galenic medicine. I suggest that we should understand Wang Gui’s innovations as a response to his encounter with the Galenic medical tradition, as practised by Islamic doctors in Yuan China (1271–1368). I will draw attention to the different meanings of Wang Gui’s vs Galenic examinations of bodily discharges. Which concepts and practices were transmitted in this particular instance of a practical (and likely non-textual) knowledge transmission? And why?

Joerg Henning Huesemann, “’Treasure Manure Like Gold’—Nightsoil in Ming–Qing Agriculture

“Treasure manure like gold” was something which according to Yuan 元 (1279–1368) scholar Wang Zhen 王禎 (fl. 1271–1333) “only those who devote themselves to the foundation 本 (i.e. agriculture) know about”. Like Wang Zhen, many authors of agricultural writings (nongshu 農書) regarded the application of fertilisers as an important part of the farmers’ work. Among the dozens of different materials Chinese peasants used for fertilising their fields, human excreta were of particular importance. In pre-Song 宋 (960–1279) sources, reports about fertilisers are relatively scarce and it was only in later writings that authors dealt in greater detail with the materials and techniques used to improve soil quality. As part of this development, they also recorded explanations to elucidate what is a fertiliser, how it works and why it is important to fertilise fields. Human excrements were often valued as the most effective fertiliser and farmers travelled distances to acquire nightsoil from larger settlements and cities. Over time, trading nightsoil developed into a well-organized and profitable business. Westerners travelling the Chinese empire also noticed the use of human waste in agriculture and frequently discussed this topic in their writings. Using a variety of sources, I will discuss how Chinese and Westerners wrote about nightsoil and assessed its value for Chinese agriculture, thereby shedding more light on how Chinese farmers turned waste into money.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room B
Histories of Human and Other Waste in Pre-modern China