Don't pee on this teapot

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Over the years, we've often blogged about signs in China (and sometimes elsewhere) forbidding people to urinate where they're not supposed to, e.g., "Urination is inhuman", with references to earlier posts near the end.

Now Morgan Jones has sent in what is probably the most unusual of all such warnings in this genre.

This late 19th century papier mache teapot belongs to the British Folk Art collection of Compton Verney, the UK museum where Morgan works. The teapot is 77.7 cm (about 30 inches) high. Here's the gallery guide, with the teapot on the fourth page. It was probably made as an advertisement, perhaps for the window of a grocer's or tea shop. On the front side it advertises "Finest Yu-Tsien Tea" (referring to yǔqián chá 雨前茶 ["before rain tea"], I believe).

More mysteriously, the back reads:

zài cǐ bùkě xiǎobiàn 在此不可小便 ("it is not permitted to urinate [lit., 'small convenience'] here") — in the vertical column
bái máo lǎo 白毛佬 ("white haired guy") — in a line to the right of the column
bái máo 白毛 ("white haired") — upside down, in a line to the left.

The somewhat odd calligraphy (connecting 在 with 此 and 大 instead of 土 in 在) looks like it comes from a later restoration. It seems possible (though not at all certain) that the Roman letter writing was put on with a stencil, so one suspects that the maker of the pot, trying to give it an exotic appearance, unwittingly had an inappropriate message added to it.

Who the 'white-haired fellow' is supposed to be is a bit of a mystery. Nor is it clear why he is being invoked next to an injunction against urination. A member of the gallery staff at Compton Verney reported that a visitor once translated it rather freely as "beware the White-haired Spirit — no pissing here." Morgan says that he always found this rather unconvincing — at least until he read all the LLog entries detailing warnings for those who urinate where they aren't meant to.

Compton Verney also has a large collection of Chinese bronzes, and this attracts visitors who are interested in these impressive vessels. A while ago a visitor from the Shanghai museum (which holds one of the world's premier collection of Chinese bronzes) said he thought it had been put there as a joke by some Chinese person to, in his words, "mà wàiguórén" 罵外國人 ("dis foreigners").

At any rate, Morgan hopes that we find this amusing, and if we have any comments he'd be very glad to hear them. At our convenience, of course!

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13 Comments »

  1. WindowlessMonad said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

  2. Vasha said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    Are those Chinese words stenciled? The only way this can make sense to me is if they were applied as decoration by someone who didn't know what they said — some being upside down supports this. I can see why you'd need a stencil saying "don't pee here" (to be applied to buildings by possibly illiterate maintenance workers), but "white haired guy" is harder; at a wild guess, an equivalent to seats on buses reserved for seniors?

  3. John Hill said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    Maybe some old guy used teapots as urinals, and this bothered someone??? It looks to be a perfect size and even has an easily-grasped handle. As an 'old guy' myself, I wouldn't mind having one under my bed – it would get frequent use, and would surely be far more pleasant to use than those cold, stainless steel urine bottles they give me when in hospital!

  4. Meena Vathyam said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    Maybe a chamber pot for a white-haired guy :)

  5. Daniel Tse said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    Is 佬 used outside of Cantonese?

  6. Morgan Jones said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 4:33 am

    @Vasha, the Chinese could very well be stencilled, judging by the way the characters are drawn. Up close, however, you can see what look like brush strokes in the paint and they look more like it's been painted on in a normal fashion. I wondered too if maybe someone was copying stencilled text free hand, maybe using something stencilled on a shipping crate as a model? Doesn't help with the white-haired guy either, though.

    When I get a chance, I'm going to get a paintings specialist to see what they think about stencilling. (NB: 'plural they' in my first LL post!)

  7. MsH said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 6:21 am

    Perhaps this was made for the window of a shop, and was turned around at night, to display the back? Very frugal. The "white-haired guy" could be some local reference lost in time.

  8. Gianni said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 6:53 am

    @Daniel

    佬 is also used in Hakka and Southern Min, and also some dialects of Mandarin. An ethnic group of China living in Guizhou is named 仡佬族 Gelao nationality.

  9. Theodore said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 9:39 am

    Could there be some idiomatic meaning to the "white-haired guy" that refers to the material the pot is made of? IOW, could this be a warning that this is not a real pot, and therefore will not hold liquids well?

  10. Jason said,

    March 30, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    I've heard 佬儿 used in Pekingese/Beijing dialect, as in 美国佬儿. This term was particularly dear to Beijing taxi drivers.

  11. Morgan Jones said,

    March 30, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    I have been informed that 白毛 (white hair) is also a tea term–referring I think to some varieties of tea leaf that have fine hairs on them.

    Varieties I've found include 白毫银针 (White hair silver needle) 白毛猴 (white haired monkey) and even one called simply 白毛茶 (white hair tea). I still don't see what this would have to do with the 'guy' (佬) or urination.

  12. Natalie said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    Chinese doesnt require a plural-making ending, though it sometimes uses one; I think the "white-haired guy" probably means something like "attention, elderly people." So with the rest of it, perhaps a translation might be "Elderly people: Do not urinate here [no matter how much this may look to you like a fancy chamberpot]."

  13. Morgan Jones said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 5:45 am

    Another visitor's suggestion at Compton Verney: 'white haired guy(s)' might mean foreigners, as in powdered wigs. Wigs were a century out of fashion by the time of the teapot, but If if the Dutch were known as 'red beards', etc, this seems possible. Anyone ever heard of this?

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