Meta-Museum – NO SPITTING IN THE SILVER VASE! 在银色花瓶的没有分散!


The Chinese Export Silver spittoon that thought it was a vase!

A few weeks, I featured a vase in the an article entitled “Chinese Treasures That Come and Go”. While the “vase” still is as stunning, quite soon after publishing the article I discovered the vase was actually a spittoon, thanks to two vigilant, knowledgable collector colleagues*. This heightened my curiosity because I had recognised that some of the decorative motifs indicated the vase had some relationship to marriage – two butterflies, for example; young love, undying love. I was failing to understand why a spittoon would have significance to a wedding. So began yet another tangent of my research

Luen Wo spittoon:vaseand what I discovered is not only fascinating and but highly revealing of how an item, that was considered a necessity 1400 years ago, went on a journey through Chinese culture, changing usage and symbolic perception along the way.

 For those that missed the first article, the quite extraordinary “vase” [pictured left] was made by Luen Wo circa 1895 and weighs a hefty 960gm.  Wo detailing

A spittoon, by default, has to imply spitting. The roots of the custom of spitting and the use of a spittoon [cuspidor**] in China is somewhat diverse and confusing. While some point to the custom of betel nut chewing requiring the need for a spittoon, that gives no obvious logical reason why a spittoon was considered an essential part of a wedding dowry [or am I missing something here!].

Tang Yue Ware spittoon

The reality is the spittoon probably made a peripatetic journey through the minefield of Chinese customs and perceptions through the centuries, so whereas it became more of a symbolic object somewhere in the history of time, it was most probably during the Song dynasty it was deemed a necessary item that had disease control at the centre of its purpose in being. Having said that, spittoons do exist from the Tang dynasty, they are quite rare but some believe they were solely zha dou or slop jars for food scraps and rice wine dregs. When making tea, the Chinese first rinsed cups and teapot in boiling water to cleanse and warm them. Such water would be jettisoned into a zha dou along with tea dregs and other waste. It is in the Song dynasty that we tend to see vessels created specifically as a spittoon.

The Song dynasty had developed public welfare in urban areas with the opening of dispensaries, hospitals and orphanages. This was partly due to the concern the Song had for infant and child health, in particular for smallpox which was a major cause of infant mortality at the time. In addition to road-sweepers and nightly human waste collection, the use of spittoons was encouraged. Expectoration was considered efficacious in the removal of infection or “bad health” from internal organs. One can therefore see how the use of spittoons became essential and even, over time, assumed a hierarchical snobbery or reverence where Imperial spittoons were created in silver, gold or lacquerware. One can even understand, perhaps, how customs or symbolism connected to spittoons changed over the

Song Green Ware spittooncenturies. It is interesting though that the connection to marriage [and future infants] remained and could possibly be linked to the use during the Song period as a public health issue connected to infant diseases and mortality.

Song era spittoons are to be found in stoneware, porcelain, lacquer and silver; which material was first is nigh impossible to determine. However, in the 10th century Song spittoon [pictured left] we can begin to see the evolution of the wide fluted inclined rim is not dissimilar from the 19th century Luen Wo spittoon, but it’s that very rim that attests to the vessel’s usage.

Song spittoon


A Ch’un ware glazed spittoon from Honan Province – wares of this sort [right] were made for use by the last Northern Song [Sung] emperor [who reigned from 1101-1125], but some authorities believe that this particular vessel and others like it [in the National Palace Museum, Taipei] were also made during the Ming Dynasty [14th century].

Silver Sung Dynasty spittoon



Here we see probably one of the earliest silver spittoons that have survived. Southern Song[1127-1279AD], height 8.2cm, diameter of mouth 16.1cm.,  weighing 259gm; from a hoard of gold and silver wares of the Song Dynasty,Pengzhou Municipal Museum Collection

Hokkien tradition dictates that a spittoon is part of a marriage dowry, known as a Zi Sun Tung 子孫桶, or literally an “offspring/grandchild bucket”, which is the clue why its auspicious qualities have links to a wedding [zi=child/offspring; syun=grandchild/descendant; tung=bucket/pail/barrel/tub]. Nowadays Hokkiens [Hakka] will seal red dates, dried longans, dried lotus seeds and sweets inside red paper, place it in the spittoon ready for presentation. When the dowry is delivered to the groom’s family house, the red paper and all the sweet goodies inside are removed and distributed to children. A young boy, preferably born in the year of the dragon, will be invited to pass urine into the spittoon – a ritual that wishes a son for the newlyweds.

This seemingly strange tradition has a logical history. Women, historically, gave birth at home and the multi-purpose “hygiene bucket” was used during childbirth. Historically, the bride’s parents gave what was considered to be a necessary gift. The toilets of Chinese households were not easily accessible from bedrooms as they were usually built as out-houses for sanitation purposes. Hence spittoons were used for passing urine in the bedrooms at night and would be cleared in the morning.

Hakka are a sub-group of Han Chinese. There are various theories as to their origins though, ranging from the Central Plain, the North or the South, but one of the most significant migration periods seems to have occurred in the Northern Song period, which might explain how the spittoon was adopted around the same time.

19th century coral glaze spittoon

Lee Kuan Yew [Singapore], Sun Yat Sen, and Deng Xiaoping were all Hakka Chinese. Today there are approximately 80 million Hakka mainly across China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.

During several dynasties, a gold or highly decorative spittoon would be among the various objects displayed in front of the Emperor at ceremonies. After 1949, the spittoon became much more prevalent in everyday life: spittoons were placed at every conceivable public place, and were commonplace in homes as well. The mass introduction of spittoons was no doubt a public hygiene initiative, motivated by a desire to “contain” the once common Chinese practice of spitting onto the floor.

Deng Xiapeng and spittoon

And from Emperor to more recent times, an audience or casual with Deng Xiapeng was always not without the ubiquitous spittoon – perhaps a remnant of his Hakka roots, although he was also a heavy smoker! A highlight of a 1979 meeting with Deng captured him having his “vigorous” mid-interview use of the spittoon. For the sake of friendship and mutual cooperation however, the Chinese authorities requested the footage of Deng spitting not be broadcast!

Deng Xiapeng & Mrs Thatcher

Later, at a 1982 meeting with Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiapeng to discuss the future of Hong Kong, his somewhat copious use of his spittoon [seen at Deng’s feet, left] was said to have been the last straw for the  formidable “Iron Lady”.

One cannot discuss the origins of the spittoon in China without discussing “betel chewing”. Betel chewing in China and the spittoon are inextricable linked.  But “betel-nut chewing” is actually a misnomer caused by Europeans labeling it so – what is chewed it an areca nut and that is actually not betel – it is also not technically a nut, but a seed. Betel chewing, though, is considered to be a habit one fifth of the global population have!

Betel chewing creates a mild euphoria; a feeling of well-being. It is not a narcotic, neither is considered to be addictive. The properties of the areca nut relevant to betel chewing are alkaloids and tannin. The main alkaloid, arecoline, is toxic and has a stimulating nervous action, resulting in a relaxed feeling. This alkaloid activates secretion, increases smooth muscle activity, salivation, and thirst, but reduces appetite. It gives a red colour to the saliva, teeth, and faeces. The alkaloids in the areca-nut also contribute nitrogenous matter to the diet which neutralises stomach acids and acts as an astringent. The tannin in the nut contributes the property of astringency.

Betel is considered to create and induce enhancement in both social and sexual relationships. Betel has played a role in ceremonies involving marital union since ancient times. Even today it is offered as a prelude to discussions of partners, dowries, and other necessary arrangements for a marriage. Acceptance of the betel signifies agreement to the proposal under discussion. It serves as an offering in traditional betrothal and marriage ceremonies, although the ceremonial adoption of betel in marriage and betrothal matters vary considerably from country to country.

According to locals and historical records, the custom of entertaining guests with betel nuts has long existed in Hainan Province. As is recorded in “Southern plants- betel nut”, an encyclopedia compiled by Dao Gu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) , “Hainan people, upon the arrival of distinguished guests, will invariably present the nuts”. Another book also records, “Not tea but betel nuts are served when guests arrive”. These and other records show that Hainan people have long regarded betel nuts as superior gifts, believing that “Nothing but betel nuts can be given as gifts to relatives and friends”.

While in China it was adopted by the Tang Imperial court as a social custom of welcome and goodwill, both betel chewing and the use and usages of a spittoon both ran in parallel, they also seem to have gone on their own peripatetic journeys through the centuries, often independently – expectoration and the spittoon are a perfectly obvious match; the ceremonial usages linked to marriage, betrothal and offspring less obvious, but one can see the logic. One can also understand how the spittoon became an essential Imperial accoutrement.

Centuries of history do have the habit of distorting meanings of ceremonies as well as the folkloric superstitions that arise out of them – or could that be as a result of the betel chewing!!! Does the Chinese habit of spitting derive from betel chewing or the Song dynasty quest for health and hygiene? The mystery will linger but thankfully so do the glorious spittoons – or is that a vase!

NO SPITTING * Special thanks to Michael Backman and Gerry Klapwyck who both, independently alerted me to the existence and relevance of spittoons in Chinese and South East Asian culture and how a spittoon can make a rather glorious vase!

 ** Cuspidor: mid 18th century: from Portuguese, ‘spitter’, from cuspir ‘to spit’, from Latin       conspuere – [Oxford English Dictionary]

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