Closestool encounters

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Thomas Whiston, Bill Poser, and Victor Steinbok called my attention to a bizarre device made in China that goes by the name "Closestool Burst Destructor." It was introduced to the world by David Bernstein on the Volokh Conspiracy, March 10, 2009.

The Chinese original for "Closestool Burst Destructor" is MA3TONG3 BAO4ZHA4 QI4, which might better be translated as "Device for Blowing up Toilets."

Gianni Wan helped me discover the answer by sending this product description which apparently shows the front of the package that appeared on the Volokh Conspiracy (note the shape of the slot for hanging the package on a sales rack):

The note beneath the picture (and in larger characters at the top of the page in the orange bar) tells us that this is a "fun toy for blowing up toilets" whose purpose is to ZHENG3REN2 ("fix people"). Apparently, tricking people by blowing up their toilet is popular in China (Gianni remembers people doing it to each other when he was younger), but didn't catch on very well in the United States, so the manufacturer had to send his excess inventory to Israel where Bernstein photographed the back of the package pictured above.

As a matter of fact, Victor Steinbok had written to me several months ago asking about the name of a product he had encountered in Maryland, if I remember correctly. Although the item was mysteriously called a "Closestool Brush," it looked like nothing more than a toilet brush. A quick search of the Web revealed that "closestool brush" has become more or less standard for toilet brushes made in China.

There are plenty of synonyms and euphemisms for "toilet" in English that are still current (e.g., commode, crapper, potty, throne, stool, can, john), so it is passing wondrous that the Chinese would have settled upon "closestool" as the ubiquitous mercantile translation for MA3TONG3.

Now, I do not want to be responsible this time for determining which translation software has enshrined the arcane term "closestool" as the default translation for toilet in China these days. Instead, I will just point out some of the curious facts about the word "closestool" that I have dug up.

Merriam-Webster informs us that "closestool" dates to the 15th c. and means "a stool holding a chamber pot."

Elsewhere we find that the "closestool" is "A utensil to hold a chamber vessel, for the use of the sick and infirm. It is usually in the form of a box, with a seat and tight cover."

More delightful details and a charming picture are to be found here.

Perhaps the most intriguing historical datum about the closestool that I found during my investigations is this bizarre sentence by John Florio (in 1603), translating Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Folio Society 2006, p. 17: "other Princes, […] to dispatch their weightiest affaires make often their close stoole, their regall Throne or Councel-chamber….".

BTW, the English plumber and businessman, Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), contrary to proper opinion, did not invent the flush toilet, and his name probably played no role in the development of defecation-related slang. According to the OED, the noun crap was in use since 1490 to mean "The residue formed in rendering, boiling, or melting fat", and since the 19th century "coarse slang" for "excrement" or "rubbish". The verb crap meaning "defecate" is first cited from 1846, and the slang term crapper for "toilet" was first spotted in the U.S. in the early 1930s.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Actually, blowing up toilets is a concept deeply embedded in American culture, as web search for something like {toilet M80} will indicate.

    It's just that we have our own traditions about how to do it.

  2. Erik said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    Those closestool burst destructors look astonishingly like the rings of exploding caps that we used in cap guns when I was a kid. A pin would strike one of the little plastic circles containing some kind of mild explosive that would make a loud bang, and the cap gun would rotate the ring, moving the next circle in place. I'm trying to figure out how they're supposed to work in a toilet. Is there a fuse or something? Is it something you attach to the underside of the seat, so that someone who drops the seat would be surprised with a bang? If so, it's probably a little bit different from dropping firecrackers into a toilet, which can be a lot more violent, and would probably not be used to surprise someone trying to use that toilet (partly for timing issues, but mostly because you could really hurt someone that way).

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Yes, let us not fall into the Needham trap and think that all advanced technology had its origin in China. When I was a lad in Maine back during the warm-up Depression, we still had hired men and hired girls, live-in kinda servants, although the relationship was often complicated by their being children of relatives or friends.

    Anyway, it was considered very witty to sneak an Alka-Seltzer® tablet into the hired girl's chamber pot. This was much less destructive than the M80 approach, but still had its moments when the hired girl would burst from her attic room at 3:00 AM, bellowing for my aunt.

  4. John Kozak said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    Thos Crapper's shop sadly no longer stands on the King's Road, but can be seen to good effect in the opening of Losey's "The Servant".

  5. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Our ancestors were not as squeamish as we are now. Receiving visitors while sitting on one's chaise percée was apparently quite common in Europe, as the quotation from Montaigne shows. In Molière's play Le Malade Imaginaire (17th century), the main character (a wealthy bourgeois) hardly moves from his as family members and visitors are coming to talk to him. (Similarly, in Rome there were rows of public latrine holes where men would sit and hold conversations with each other).

    [(myl) A modern, American, and more intimate version is here.]

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    While we're on the subject, let me recommend the book

    The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters: Rose George

    Ms George devotes a couple of chapters to China but never, as far as I recall, mentions the Closestool Burst Destructor.

  7. Robert said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I am from the UK. Devices similar to these are sold in joke shops.

    Here are some examples:

    Apologies for posting what, now I look at it, looks almost exactly like spam.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    (MYL Thank you for the site, but it is not available from where I am).

    [(myl) Here's a frame capture:

    The source is a SNL fake advertisement for something called the "Love Toilet". ]

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    rings of exploding caps that we used in cap guns when I was a kid

    They're the same: "ring amorces". Never used them as a kid; they went with upmarket revolver-action cap guns, and I had to be content with the kind that used paper-roll caps.

  10. Sili said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    I must have misunderstood the context of the Montaigne quotation, since I took to it mean that the "weightiest affaires" of princes were their faeces.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    Sili, NO! the princes in question use their closestool as the equivalent of the Oval Office, dispatching weighty affairs of state at the same time as … (I don't have a copy of Montaigne's original, so I don't know what word was translated as "weighty" – the French word might not have the same connotation).

    [(myl) It's in the chapter entitled "Nos Affections S'emportent au delà de Nous". Here it is with a bit of context:

    Il me faut adjouster cet autre exemple aussi remarquable pour cette consideration, que nul des precedens. L'Empereur Maximilian, bisayeul du Roy Philippes, qui est à present, estoit prince doué de tout plein de grandes qualitez, et entre autres d'une beauté de corps singuliere. Mais parmy ces humeurs, il avoit cette-cy bien contraire à celle des princes, qui pour despecher les plus importants affaires, font leur throsne de leur chaire percée: c'est qu'il n'eust jamais valet de chambre si privé, à qui il permit de le voir en sa garderobbe. Il se desroboit pour tomber de l'eau, aussi religieux qu'une pucelle à ne descouvrir ny à medecin ny à qui que ce fut les parties qu'on a accoustumé de tenir cachées. Moy, qui ay la bouche si effrontée, suis pourtant par complexion touché de cette honte. Si ce n'est à une grande suasion de la necessité ou de la volupté, je ne communique guiere aux yeux de personne les membres et actions que nostre coustume ordonne estre couvertes. J'y souffre plus de contrainte, que je n'estime bien seant à un homme, et sur tout, à un homme de ma profession.

    The point is that the Emperor Maximilian is completely unlike these free-and-easy toilet-throned princes, being so prudish that he won't even let his personal servants see him undressed. ]

  12. Sili said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    Oh, sorry. I did understand the meaning when I read on. I just like the double entendre better. I have a slight antiauthoritarian streak to me.

    But thanks.

  13. dr pepper said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Bizarre. I had thought that "closestool" and all its varient spellings had gone out of common usage before 1900.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

    Sili, the double entendre is entirely due to the English translation of the word "important" which means exactly the same in French. The French sentence is quite straighforward.

    myl, thank you for the original and its context. "Their closestool becomes their throne", from which they administer the state.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    Devices similar to these are sold in joke shops

    Related trivia: I just found a patent reference for 1864 using the same concept for an alarm signal to operate when a door is opened.

  16. Ben Teague said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    In the early 1960s we knew two ways to vandalize a toilet. You could light and flush an M80 firework, which at least would produce an eruption (and at most would destroy the waste pipes of an entire building), or you could carefully place a "torpedo" beneath one of the pads supporting the toilet seat. What we called a torpedo was a charge about the size of a mothball containing a little black powder, a little fulminate and some grit; when compressed or shocked it went off with a dramatic report but seldom caused any damage. The next user of the appliance, of course, compressed the torpedo, with hilariously comical effects on the vandals. The closestool destructor looks more like this lower-strength device.

  17. Michael W. said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

    Just wondering – how common are toilets that one sits upon in China? Is closestool maybe used only for 'Western' toilets?

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