Publication: Socioeconomics of the Chinese squat

If every culture has its distinctive cuisine and customs can every culture also lay claim to a unique physical posture?

In that case, the squat is as quintessentially Chinese as pork and cabbage dumplings.

Last year, I returned to Beijing after a few months spent observing the French and American ways of life.

Being away opened my eyes to the rampant squatting I had previously taken for granted as ordinary Beijing scenery.

Suddenly, I found myself peering out taxi windows and staring at groups of men squatting on sidewalks, stepping around hordes of squatters at train stations, and staring down at squat-style toilets.

My sudden curiosity about squatting arose because I had just accustomed myself to two other “national postures” – the French lounge and the American walk, or rather, the American jog.

Sounds odd? Let me explain.

A deeply-seated local habit

All around Paris I saw Frenchmen (and women) doing their part, insouciantly lying on grassy lawns while partaking in long summer picnics. They also prostrated themselves near any permitting architecture – under historic arches, beside refreshing fountains, atop slabs of stone – while reading, smoking, or, quite often, making out. It seems everyone indulges in this national pastime.

The French “working lunch” consists of grabbing a gourmet sandwich, walking to the nearest jardin and settling into a green recliner, provided by the government to perpetuate the patriotic lounging position.

Contrast that with the United States, where people convey themselves by a brisk walk or jog. New Yorkers bumped me left and right as I navigated intersections at the leisurely gait I had acquired in Paris.

Purposeful executives pounded the pavement on Park Avenue at all hours. Even in their free time, Americans like to step it up with a jog through the neighborhood.

Away from bustling New York in a retirement town in the Northeast I saw the pace slow a bit, but it was much of the same.

Walking, jogging or full-on running, carrying oneself in a pert upright posture is certainly the American way.

Clearly the French and American “national postures” has something to do with socioeconomics.

So, what is it about China that makes people here so inclined to squat?

A cultural anthropologist might be able to provide a good answer, but I’ll make my own guess.

It may have something to do with our agrarian history and the more confined spaces we live in.

Consider an American farmer out in his field surveying his crops. When he tires of standing he can sit on a wide variety of implements – tractors, chairs, or even nicely packaged sacks of farming supplies.

Now, if a Chinese farmer wanted to take a break in the field he’s pretty strapped for options. Should he rest on his hoe and plow? In the dirt? Certainly not near fresh fertilizer! He’s probably going to squat to rest his feet, for lack of better options. (Disbelieving foreign friends, believe me, once you get used to squatting it actually is less tiring than standing).

I’m postulating that the squat is a legacy we inherited from our more recent agrarian past, but not all Chinese farm, so how do I explain the popularity of the squat off the field? A lack of space and amenities might be the answer.

An average American kitchen has countertops, electric stoves and plenty of appropriate sitting places.

But regular Chinese moms cook in unglamorous spaces tucked into the corners of their homes.

Lower-income families frequently cook off makeshift gas or coal burners set on the floor. In these situations, the squat is a more comfortable position (and at a suitable height for the task at hand).

I might have dreamed up a far-fetched socioeconomic explanation for the Chinese squat. We won’t really know for another few decades just how ingrained in our cultural fabric the squat is, until our GDP reaches a level where every family can upgrade to a Western kitchen or an industrialized farm.


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