Toilet adventures in China: a film about transnational encounters

William A Callahan is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future, a paperback edition of which was published in 2015 (for The China Story coverage of this work, see here). His research examines the interplay of culture and politics in China, and explores documentary filmmaking as a research strategy (see ‘The Visual Turn in IR: Documentary Filmmaking as a Critical Method‘). Callahan’s other films include: ‘China Dreams: The Debate’ (2013), which is posted on the Asia Society website, and ‘Mearsheimer vs Nye on the Rise of China’ (2015) which is on The Diplomat website (for these and other films, see — The Editors


The mother of feminist international relations (IR), Cynthia Enloe, recently explained that to get a critical bottom-up understanding of international politics we need to switch from research in the halls of power to take ‘notes in a brothel, a kitchen, or a latrine’.

In this spirit, in 2014 I started working on a documentary film, toilet adventures, that explores the politics of shit in China. It uses on-camera interviews with dozens of participants to explore the very mundane personal experience of going to the bathroom in the PRC. I thought this would be an entertaining way to chart how people encounter the unknown through a bodily function that is both intimate and universal.

The film thus is part of Enloe’s broader project that shifts away from the state-to-state framing of mainstream IR to explore issues at the cutting edge of critical IR and China studies: the role of person-to-person relations, the importance of the everyday, and the value of emotions and embodied knowledge. The goal is to provide a nuanced view of encounters with the unknown—in this case, Chinese public toilets—and to show how different people addressed this alien situation, often with good humor: there was a lot of laughing as people recounted their uncomfortable experiences.

Certainly, toilet adventures risks descending into the cliché of middle-class people experiencing structural poverty for the first time in the ‘Third World’: e.g. Delhi belly. Such funny stories are political in the sense that they distinguish insiders from outsiders: there is always ‘the butt of the joke’, in this case China or India. Since Edward Said’s path-breaking study Orientalism was published in 1978, critical scholars have been concerned with the power/knowledge dynamic in the West’s relationship with China. This raises a serious question for my film: does it play into the stereotype of China as an exotic place that, although achieving much progress, is still ‘behind’ the ‘advanced’ West? In other words, is toilet adventures an Orientalist film?

That is up to each viewer to determine.

But I will say that making this odd film helped me to understand China and the world in a new way. While Orientalism assumes that only the West can dominate the power/knowledge dynamic, what about China as a rising power that increasingly dominates its own region through what Beijing calls ‘discursive power’ 话语权?

Indeed, the film project actually started in ways that jam the dominant East/West polemic: rather than stemming from white male complaints about the PRC, the idea for toilet adventures actually was sparked by Thai women’s mixed feelings about China and its lavatorial infrastructure. This, for me, was a post-Orientalist moment that opened up new ways of understanding China and its relationship with the world.

As well as providing a more nuanced view of reactions to China, toilet adventures raises a set of questions about what counts as knowledge. The film’s participants certainly provide plenty of facts to answer the ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ questions of going to the bathroom in rural China. However, even with all these facts on display, the main point is not rational in the sense of providing an ‘accurate’ representation of the PRC. Films are interesting because they allow us to appreciate the ‘affect’ of emotional and bodily knowledge: the cringes that we see on participants’ faces when they recall coming face-to-face with a dirty, smelly squat toilet for the first time, the uncomfortable laughs provoked when the private becomes public, and the cathartic sighs when the experience is complete.

Rather than just gather the ‘facts’ of peoples’ experiences, documentary films thus can illustrate the estrangement, the giddiness, and thus the excess evoked by such encounters. Indeed, toilet adventures shows how bowel movements can provoke emotional movement, and even political mobilization.

Such images of everyday practices—and everyday vulnerabilities—in China underline IR theorist Kimberly Hutchings’s apt observation that ‘producing knowledge is a messy business’. toilet adventures provides a post-Orientalist opportunity because it both reinscribes and resists the dominant East/West discourse by refiguring it in a strange place: Chinese toilets.