Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

The weird, warm hospitality in Chinese toilet signs


I stared in awe and envy at the large sign above the public loo. “Come, easy go in rushing”. Me being me, the Freudian meaning first sparkled through my mind: “Take it slowly as you build up to a climax”. Well, I knew the sign could not have that steamy meaning even though loads of desperate youngsters have used – ugh – toilets to satisfy the human race’s most powerful urge. What’s a rock concert without seeing young couples disappearing into portable toilets?

Then I got the toilet sign’s meaning. I think. The original Chinese translates (parses) far better into English as: “Take your time; there is no need to hurry”. That meaning is so much more hospitable. In other words, “Hey, relax, make yourself at home”. Welcome each bottom to the glinting toilet seat as a treasured guest. Give those sweet cheeks a hug.

Ooooh, I am so envious. I simply cannot write anywhere near as well as the riches to be found in Chinglish here in China. The semantics are scattered, making sentences so alive with possibility, pearls flung shimmering across the floor from a necklace that is broken by mistake while lovers climb into each other on the bed.

The word “mistake” is the key word in the above sentence. When we write in our own languages, we write in the grooves of a “correctness” that reduces enormously life and life experiences. In fact, the diminishment is beyond comprehension. I have often spoken about words as labels and the fact that we confuse what people are with the labels we give them. Oh, he’s a Catholic. He probably doesn’t have a wicked sense of humour. Oh, he’s gay, he must be emotionally attuned. He’s an atheist. He must be angry and depressed. He needs salvation. Just think about it, so much of our perception is limited by the language we constantly use and which deepens the same old grooves in the mind.

So isn’t it a fascinating thought that the realm of rich possibility lies in what we label as “mistakes”?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be spending so much time in the toilet. (Both literally, and, for some of my prudish readers, also figuratively.) But there are other signs in this particular public loo which announce, “A small step forward, A step of civilization”. “Why?” you might ask. Because they grandly hang above the men’s urinals. Get up nice and close; don’t mess on the floor; think of the next user.


And don’t worry, I was holding the camera with both hands when taking the photo of the sign above the urinal. That is to say, I wasn’t using one of my hands at the time.

Noddy badge? I do believe I deserve one for having the nerve to take a camera into a public toilet.

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    • ian shaw

      Wang qian – yi xiao pu
      Wen ming – yi da pu

      Your interpretation is quite good.

      One small step forward
      wiould show that you are civilized
      That is,,you don’t pee on the floor.

      But it cannot beat:

      We aim to please
      You aim too, please

    • Nduru

      As someone once noted on the moon: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind!”

    • Judith

      Thanks – very charming in the real sense!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      It is not just the Chinese who can’t translate, it is a well known international phenonomen. My husband and I were trying to sell property for German developers for a while, and their translations were terribly embarrassing, since everyone local associated these ads with us! Nothing could persuade them that they could possibly be wrong! I have blotted them out of my mind they were so embarrassing!

      I read a very interesting book once (“Diplomatic Bag”)on very serious international diplomatic incidents caused by bad translators in diplomatic circles! It is not only language, it is also culture – direct talk, Western style, is regarded as impolite in many cultures.

    • Karl

      This one started out well Rod and I was ready for a fascinating insight into Chinese translation and the reasons why it is so consistently bizarre. Unfortunately, like most men, you climaxed far too early.

      Use your considerable knowledge about Chinese and write up something for us about Chinese understanding of English and the great differences between the two languages.

      Have a great Spring Festival.


    • MLH

      Ditto, Karl.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Hi Karl and MLH – thanks but ummmmm…. I think what you are requesting sounds like an academic thesis, or a dissertation, or a small book, far beyond the confines of a humble blog, which , as it is often suggested, should not be more than 800 words.

      But I shall endeavour in future :)

    • Lauren Hamer

      Oh how I’ve missed your wonderful columns Rod. I will definitely be reading them more often. This reminds me of the Zulu language and its romantic descriptors. I do not speak the language at all, but have a friend who has explained, for example, the word for a white man actually means ‘Big white foam’, as the white man came into Durban’s port on a boat off of… the big white foam.

      I also completely agree with your take on labels and mans assumption of the other.