“Why are Koreans so obsessed with poop?” asked my inquisitive friend when she recently came to Seoul on a business trip.
She said so after eating a piece of red bean paste-filled pastry in the shape of, well, poop, sold in Insadong, Seoul’s tourist hotspot. I said that it was just pastry, and not to think of it too deeply. But she insisted, “Explain the coffee shop over there then.”
Ah yes. Poop Cafe. A coffee shop that serves up latte in toilet bowl-shaped mugs. And waffles with chocolate ice-cream inside mini-ceramic squatters. Okay, maybe she had a point.
To be sure, these poop-focused businesses aren’t unique to South Korea. But references to poop, called ttong in Korean, indeed are commonplace. Often thought of as repugnant across different cultures, poop has come to be seen as cute in South Korea, at least in the right context.
It’s everywhere if you just look around: a poop character and stuffed toy called Ttongchimi, poop sculptures, a famous children’s book-turned-film adaptation about a poor little piece of dog poop’s quest to understand the meaning of life, a poop-themed playroom and a toilet museum. Then there are terms like ttong-gangaji, or ‘poop puppy,’ which is an endearing way to call a grandchild—think ‘cutie pie.’ And many poop-related stories and proverbs in Korean folk culture.
Pooping, too, is seemingly nothing to be ashamed of. At my previous workplace here in Seoul, Korean colleagues would openly talk to each other across toilet cubicles. The worst were those who would talk to clients while flushing. And once on a reality TV show, a member of a girl group—one of South Korea’s many dancing and singing troupes—was walking away from cameras; when the crew asked her what she was doing, she replied with a smile, “I am going to take a dump.”
So what’s up with all these references to poop and the blasé attitude?
Choi Duk-kyung, professor of history at Pusan National University, argues that much of it comes down to Korea’s long history as an agrarian society. In his book Manure Ecology in the Agricultural History of East Asia, Choi says that for centuries poop was not waste but a precious natural resource. Ttong was stuff of life.
“The most common fertilizer in East Asian traditional agriculture was human feces and urine. Since ancient times, the people of East Asian used this mix as an agricultural resource to support large numbers of people and preserve the ecological environment,” he writes. “It was the foundation of improved productivity of crops throughout Asia.”
Using human feces and urine as fertilizer can be traced back to China’s late Tang dynasty (618–907), before being transmitted to Korea and Japan. People believed that human waste was “a source of energy that can be recycled to enhance the life of animals and plants.” Consider the Chinese character for feces—糞—a combination of 米 (rice) and 異 (different): feces was another form of rice, putrid but ultimately the same.
In fact, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), as the Chinese became more aware of human excrement and urine’s beneficial effect on soil fertility, demand for this natural fertilizer increased, and collecting it from toilet pits for sale became a real, potentially lucrative occupation.
Feces was also used as medicine. According to Dongui Bogam, a Korean medical treatise compiled by royal physician Heo Jun and published in 1613, white dog’s excrement could be used to cure “furuncles, fistula, and all kinds of poison” as well as “abdominal masses in the pits of the stomach and unrelieved stagnant blood caused by falling.”
The text also describes no less than five times concoctions using human excrement—to cure ailments of all sorts including “fever and insanity from cold damage,” “severe fever due to an epidemic disease and wandering from a mania,” and even the onset of death “due to an abscess and carbuncle and an effusion of the back.”
(Interestingly, during Korea’s Joseon dynasty, the king had his own portable toilet, known as a maehwateul—“plum flower contraption.” Court physicians checked his health by checking the color, smell and even taste of his poop.)
In the 2012 movie Gwanghae, a commoner impersonating the titular king calls on servants to bring in a portable toilet. The resulting feces is taken to a court physician for inspection and tasting.
In his 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries, or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, American soil scientist F.H. King dedicated an entire chapter to the use of manure in East Asia.
“One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food,” King wrote.
This isn’t to say that there were no problems with human feces disposal in East Asia: Cities as big as Seoul and Beijing should have been equipped with sewers and sewage treatment facilities given the size of their populations. One British observer, Isabella Bird Bishop, visited Korea in 1894 and remarked that Seoul was “the dirtiest city in the world next to Beijing,” with streets “full of foul smells.”
Even in the 1950s and 60s, poop collectors could be seen in South Korea’s major towns and human excrement was used as fertilizer on agricultural fields. But as modern toilets spread in cities, and public health specialists scrutinized the use of natural fertilizer for spreading parasites, rural areas came under ridicule precisely precisely for its seeming inability to deal with poop in the correct manner.
“What was once a wise and ecologically sound practice of recycling became a symbol of backwardness in modern eyes. By the time flush toilets began to be introduced, the change was complete: what was once a precious resource for recycling now became a disgusting waste to be flushed away,” writes Choi.
Yet to this day, poop is rarely used as a curse word in South Korea, unlike in many Western countries (think shit, merde and scheisse); the idea of poop as valuable survives. It’s still said that dreaming of poop brings good luck.
The modern trend of commercializing poop—or at least its representations—seems to have begun in South Korea in the 1990s. Weekly magazine Hankyoreh 21 noted already in 1999 the popularity of Ttongchimi which “carries poop on its head.” It quoted a 21-year-old woman as saying “I get tired of pretty and cute characters. When people around me see [a poop character], they get befuddled and embarrassed and then start enjoying it.”
It doesn’t hurt that in the age of Instagram, poop-shaped characters and food resonate with consumers in search of the next cool—or weird—thing to take photos of and share on social media.
South Korea actually has a full-fledged museum dedicated to the culture of pooping, called Haewoojae. Shaped like a toilet and located som 34km south of Seoul, it was built by late Suwon mayor Sim Jae-duck, a.k.a. Mr. Toilet, to coincide with the founding of the World Toilet Association (WTA)—a Suwon-based international organization “dedicated to protecting lives through the improvement of sanitation via toilets.” (Sim was reportedly born in a toilet himself, because his grandmother thought it would save him from premature death.) Just don’t confuse it with the better-known Singapore-based World Toilet Organization, which has a similar objective.
(The name Haewoojae is derived from the word haewuso, which is how toilets at Buddhist templs are called.)
Once Sim, who lived there, passed away in 2009, the house was donated to Suwon City in accordance with his will, and remodelled as a museum.
Today, in the garden of the complex are many representations of how Koreans used to defecate, and what tools they used to clean up. I learned that at some point people used to wipe with a straw rope. “People hung a rope and rubbed their anuses on it. When it dried out, people shook the rope [to release the fecal matter] and the next person used it again,” read the accompanying description.
In the building itself, there were instructions on how to eat properly and produce healthy golden poop. Kids were running around touching the different models of poop on display; others were playing on a slide in the shape of a toilet bowl.
Haewoojae curator Cha Min-Jung explained: “In Korea, the folk tradition…tends to be rich in references to poop. It’s partly due to the influence of being an agrarian society. … Our ancestors didn’t see poop simply as manure; they used things around them and nature [including poop] as tropes to express their emotions, as well as their belief that ultimately good wins over evil.”
Far-fetched as that may sound, a recent example of this tendency to see poop as more than physical matter is the very popular children’s book Puppy Poo by writer Kwon Jeong-saeng. This 1969 tale features, literally, canine excrement as its central character. But as it contemplates the meaning of its existence, a flower tries to grow out of the ground nearby. Puppy Poo sacrifices itself to help the seedling become a beautiful flower.
“It is a book with a deep philosophical meaning, beyond seeing poop simply as manure. These narratives can be easily found in Korean folk legends and beliefs,” added Cha. “I think that stories about poop, which stands for both the sacred and the profane, embodies our ancestors’ wisdom, expressing their views on and humor toward life itself.”
As I left the museum, I took a pamphlet home. At the back it read:
“Sustainable living begins with defecation. That is why feces can be such a ‘poo-tiful’ thing.”
Cover image: poop sculptures down the street from Hyehwa Station in Seoul. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)