The great Irish satirical rebel Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly had many songs in his repetoire about the struggle to free his beloved Ireland from the hated British. One of them was called 'Spit on the Brits', and during his raucous concerts he would encourage the audience to participate by coughing their guts up before joining in with the chorus, which went as follows:
We'd spit on the Brits
Spit on the Brits
And we'd shower them in a lovely sea of green,
We'd spit on the Brits,
Spit on the Brits
And then they'd blow us all to smithereens
In the West spitting is usually interpreted as an act of aggression; if you're standing at the bus stop and someone loudly spits on the floor, it's natural to move away. Not because you think that they might spit on you, but because someone who displays such an obvious lack of respect for social convention and basic hygiene might be either dangerous or diseased or both.
The Chinese habit of regularly clearing their lungs in public is therefore an affront to Western sensibilities. Ironically, the Chinese, as Paul Theroux points out, are not among the world's great spitters, because for all the fanfare that precedes the act of expectoration, the end result tends to just dribble out of their mouths and on to the pavement. It's quite distinct from the kind of pinpoint projectile spitting familiar from John Wayne movies.
Another classic complaint amongst Western visitors to China is the staring. Often, for a Chinese peasant, seeing a foreigner is akin to us finding Chief Running Bear in full costume directing traffic. However, for us staring, however harmless the intention of the starer, is also easy to interpret as a hostile act. It seems to say: I'm here, you're there, and I've just decided I don't like you.
It has been said that the Chinese would benefit enormously from the introduction of Spitting and Staring as events in the 2008 Olympics. I don't think that's either accurate or fair. Not accurate, partly for the reasons mentioned above, and not fair because all nations have bad habits. The Americans, for example, would do very well if there was an event for invading other countries and forcing them to release a statement announcing that they are now democracies, while the gleeful minions of the World Bank and the IMF run around cackling and grabbing anything that isn't nailed down. The English would sweep the board in any event which rewarded moving of their own volition to other countries and then spending all their time writing very very long sentences complaining about everything around them, while never forgetting to include the odd self-deprecating remark to mitigate their bigotry and anticipate criticism. Ho hum.
Where the Chinese could put their habits to good use is in the intimidation of opponents in other sports. It would be off-putting to a swimmer if the person in the next lane coughed up a big greenie straight into the pool right before they all dived in. And if your opponent in tennis spent the entire time between sets with their chair turned round so they could stare straight at you if might well put you off your serve.
One of the other potential uses of staring, spitting and other generally anti-social behaviour is in the field of International Relations. A logical and non-violent way of resolving the territorial disputes of the world is in the same way that cats do - if Saddam Hussein had had the foresight to piss all over Kuwait in 1990, the Americans would have been understandably less keen to go in and remove him. Similarly, as Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly suggested, if when Mao Zedong had sent all those young Chinese soldiers to North Korea in 1950 armed only with the simple order to stand on the border and spit, maybe one million lives could have been saved.
It's easy to stand on the border of one country and spit into another. However, for long-range warfare nuclear weapons, although immoral, are probably more effective. Next week I'm off to England, hopefully out of range of the Chinese spitting brigades. It will be interesting to see, though, if in 2008 the Olympic pools will be fitted with those spit buckets they have at each end of the lanes here. Whether or not they do, I have a feeling that the Chinese will do very well indeed in all the swimming events.