Toilet revolution, an unfinished business: beware!

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Sign on a toilet door:

Source:  "In the first flush:  China’s toilet revolution remains in full swing", Week in China 453 (5/24/19)
The Chinese sign says:

xiǎoxīn mén hòu yǒurén


"Be careful of the person behind the door"

Chinese translators invariably have problems with "xiǎoxīn 小心" (lit., "little heart / mind" –> "[be] careful; take care"), typically rendering it as "carefully [vb.]; take care [of]", but also often as "beware", which is utterly inappropriate in most cases.

That's just by way of introduction to the main part of the article from which the picture is taken, namely, the urgent, ongoing toilet revolution in China.

The fearless Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party enjoins his people:

“The toilet issue is not a small issue. It is an important part of civilised construction in both urban and rural areas,” was the declaration by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2015. That was the year when he officially launched the “Toilet Revolution” – the campaign terminology even featured in the State Council Information Office’s “Dictionary of Xi Jinping’s new terms”.


For those not upholding Xi’s sanitary standards, the punishments can be severe. Recently Phoenix News reported that the public toilets in the Zhushan Scenic Area in Guangxi were inspected by Li Wenchao, a senior Party official who is also deputy mayor of the city of Dongxing.

Li swiftly declared the facilities to be disgusting. As a punishment – and to set an example to others – he made all workers in the tourism department responsible for the unsanitary toilets clean up the mess themselves. He then returned to check the loos were fit for purpose….

Forsooth, China's Great Toilet Revolution (GTR) has just begun, as has its War Against Chinglish (WAC).  If they continue at their present pace, both the Revolution and the War will still be going on a century from now.


"A quantum leap in the Chinese toilet revolution" (5/6/19) — with links to nearly two dozen earlier posts on the subject, including especially the following one, the last comment of which has a regularly updated list of numerous articles on the toilet revolution in the Chinese press:

"Toilet Revolution!!" (11/26/17)

"Crimes against English " (4/25/15)

"Free souvenirs " (8/15/15)

"Sandwiched in an escalator " (2/9/15)

"Signs from Kashgar to Delhi " (10/11/13)

"Slip carefully " (5/6/14) —  the classic instantiation of mistranslating "xiǎoxīn 小心" (lit., "little heart / mind" –> "[be] careful")

"Mind your head" (8/28/15) — with nearly two dozen flagrant mistranslations listed

[H.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Michael Watts said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 2:20 am

    I'd be tempted to translate this message as "beware lest there be someone behind the door", but that's not exactly current idiomatic English.

    Am I right in thinking the Chinese is more conditional than "be careful of the person behind the door" is? Does 小心门后有人 imply that there definitely is someone behind the door, or only that there might be?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 5:59 am

    "that's not exactly current idiomatic English"


    "be careful of the person behind the door"

    Of course, the implication is "be careful in case there might be someone behind the door", but I don't think anyone would seriously consider putting all that on the door of a toilet, and people would be annoyed at having to read something so long an clunky, especially if they were in a hurry to get inside and do their business.

  3. John Swindle said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 6:21 am

    But that's what the Chinese says. Be careful behind door have person. The idea isn't to watch out for the person behind the door but to watch out because there is (or might be) somebody behind the door.

    The English equivalent is "Please open door slowly."

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 9:13 am

    yǒu 有 ("have; be; exist")

  5. wikikali said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 9:19 am

    The translation hit me with horror, as if someone was beating me
    I think it would be better if you were
    Please, Knock first when opening closed door

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    WK — Can one open an already open door, I am forced to wonder ? One can certainly open such a door further, but I don't believe that one can open one per se.

  7. ardj said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 11:01 am

    Thanks for this enlightening insight into sanitary progress. Is there a similar sign on male loos, or is it only women who are threatening / vulnerable

  8. Michael Watts said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    But that's what the Chinese says. Be careful behind door have person.

    I don't think this perspective makes much sense. You can't interpret a string of words without knowing the grammar of the language.

    Compare the message from this older post, 没有共产党,没有新中国。

    The "that's what the Chinese says" view is just the mistake the other post reports. It "plainly" says, "not have communist party, not have new China".

    But the sentence is conditional. You can translate it correctly, if you know the grammar, as "without the communist party, there would be no new China".

    So my question above is, is the sentence 小心门后有人 conditional in the same way ("be careful in case there is someone behind the door"), or does it actually presuppose, as the English "be careful of the person behind the door" does, that there really is someone behind the door?

  9. John Swindle said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

    Hi, Michael Watts! I don't think it's conditional, exactly, and I don't think it quite presupposes someone behind the door, although it comes pretty close. It's different from "No Communist Party, No New China" . A closer grammatical parallel would be 小心碰头 Xiǎoxīn pèngtóu, famously mistranslated to English as "Bump head carefully" and better translated "Watch your head!" Be careful! Be careful of what? Bumping your head. Or, in the case of the sign, there being a person behind the door (門後有人 mén hòu yǒurén).

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