The Chinese Concept of “Dirty”

As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.

This issue reminds me of an experience I had years ago in Hangzhou. Quoting a blog post from 2005:

Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.

That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.

Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.

A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.

I was surprised, then, to see this ad:


“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]

Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. You have to be on guard against dirt, and Wind and Cold and Damp. Viruses and bacteria, on the other hand…

  2. The Ground We Walk On – After being in China a while, I think it makes sense. Here’s why. Without judgement, let’s just acknowledge that in China kids piss in the street, in tree wells, and even poop. Meanwhile, people spit everywhere, and old bones, etc., are tossed to the ground next to a table in many a diner. There’s also a lot of dust and grime, which will settle, on the ground, on grass, in your nose. With this in mind, would anyone want to put anything on such ground? I also now use those apt flyers to cover wherever I’m going to sit down.

    This is in comparison to other environments, where much of this general behavior is less common, thus it’s not disgusting to sit on the grass, put your bag on the floor, or walk barefoot. An interesting cultural diversity note, within China, my mainland Chinese friend was quite disgusted with an inner-Mongolian friend who treated the floor inside their apt, just like the outside, meaning shoes inside, scraps to the floor, etc. Meanwhile, most Chinese don’t want outside shoes inside the apt., and we must put on somewhat disgusting indoor plastic sandals! Take a moment to walk in someone else’s shoes, literally! Cheers.

  3. NuttyMonkey Says: August 17, 2023 at 1:07 pm

    So the Chinese force you to wear sandals or slippers when visiting their homes. You take shoes out and put on slippers. Otherwise me knife you – wo si ni jia, cao ni mama!!!!!!!!!!
    Now, honestly, it sounds logical that you wear something the host gives you when taking your shoes out. It makes sense. About the dirt in China, it overcomes Romania in many areas. And it also makes sense that, if you treat the sidewalk and floors, at least in public institutions and spaces, playgrounds etc. like a loo or pigsty, would you let your backpack or suitcase in a WC which may also be full of piss and shit. Not really. You adapt to the dirt as it won`t go away, no matter how many sweepers fuck their fingers to rub everything.

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