A fancy “antique fruit basket” sold on Amazon stirred a hilarious online discussion recently among Chinese netizens after the product’s actual intended use was revealed to be a spittoon or chamber pot.
“The charming antique style design allows you to go back to the 60s. It is an essential decoration for the kitchen. The Chinese antique enamel bowl can not only be used as a fruit basket, but also as an ice bucket to store wine and bread,” read the product description on Amazon.
The sale price of the “Chinese antique fruit basket” on e-commerce giant Amazon ranges from $30 to $62, while the same product only sells for 27 yuan (around $4) on the Chinese e-commerce platform, Alibaba’s Taobao.
“I wonder how would foreign buyers react after discovering what this is used for in China,” one person wrote on China’s largest microblogging site Weibo.
Traditionally known as tan yu in China, these receptacles were used primarily for collecting spit, but also functioned as mobile toilets prior to the widespread adoption of indoor bathrooms in Chinese households throughout the 1980s to 1990s. A prominent 1984 photograph captured China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping keeping a spittoon handy during talks with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Beijing. A national anti-spitting campaign was launched in the 1950s in the hopes of promoting civilization and modernity, which was later energetically endorsed by Deng in the 1980s.
Nowadays, some parents still use tan yu as training toilets for children. Other contemporary uses include convenient mobile toilet for elders, pregnant women, and disabled people, helping such individuals cope with limited mobility. The modern chamber pots have special designs to assist people who have walking difficulties.
Currently, many Chinese cross-border e-commerce platforms saw a rising demand for traditional Chinese products. DHgate’s public relations manager told Pandaily that the demand for traditional Chinese handcrafts, like round fans, enamel decorations, increased by 216% last week.
So how did the Chinese traditional bedpan go viral overseas?
The “antique fruit basket” went viral after one netizen posted a picture on social media, demonstrating that the $60 Chinese antique enamel bowl can be used for holding wines, fresh produce, ice, decorating the kitchen, or presented as a gift for housewarming and weddings.
The post was soon circulated widely among Chinese netizens, shocked to see that their childhood chamber pots had been adopted and transformed for the US e-commerce market.
“$60? I can’t believe my childhood potty is more valuable than myself,” a netizen joked on Weibo.
“I hope no one from Western countries ever buys this ‘basket’ as a gift for their Chinese friends, because none of the Chinese people would feel happy if they see a delicately packed spittoon with fruit in it,” read one comment on Weibo.
This chamber pot dispute also ignited another discussion on whether the incident represents a case of cultural appropriation.
“I don’t know how Westerners can use our potties, but I have never seen fortune cookies in China,” a Weibo user wrote, referencing the popular fortune cookies, often seen as a symbol of China within America, but which also lack any historical trace to China itself.
While some joked about Westerners’ blind pursuit of exotic cultures, many appreciated the cultural exchange. “It is actually interesting to see how things can be used differently in other cultures,” read one Weibo post, which continued, “as long as the buyers like it, it shouldn’t matter how it was ‘originally’ used.”
A Weibo user voluntarily adopted the novel Western approach by placing a bottle of champaign in the chamber pot, drinking it with a traditional Chinese enamel teacup.
This is not the first time Chinese products have gone viral overseas. Lao Gan Ma chilli sauce, for example, has proven a hit across the West. On Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, a 280-gram jar of the soybean chilli sauce costs 11 yuan ($1.7), whereas the same jar of sauce sells for $8.99 to $14 on Amazon. The chilly sauce even has a fan club on Facebook. Launched in 2006, the Lao Gan Ma Appreciation Society has 3.8K members.
“People in the West often like aspects of Chinese culture that may be unexpected to the Chinese – things that would be considered extremely ‘tu 土’ (unpretentious and earthy) in China,” said Lao Gan Ma’s Facebook fan page creator, 39-year-old Simon Stahli, an artist and photography teacher from Switzerland.
“People are focusing again on the simple joys of life, and are losing interest in mass-market consumerism. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and they are looking for the quirky and unexpected,” Stahli added.