Shit stick means "a thin stake or stick used instead of toilet paper" and was a historical item of material culture introduced through Chinese Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. A well-known example is gānshǐjué/kanshiketsu (lit. 乾屎橛 "dry shit stick") from the Chan/Zen gōng'àn/kōan in which a monk asked "What is Buddha?" and Master Yunmen/Unmon answered "A dry shit stick".
People have used many different materials in the history of anal cleansing, including leaves, rags, paper, water, sponges, corncobs, and sticks.
In very ancient times, instruments of bamboo, possibly spatulas ([cèchóu] 廁籌, [cèbì] 廁箆, or [cèjiǎn] 廁簡), may have been used with the assistance of water in cleaning the body after defecation. At other times and places, it seems that pieces of earthenware or pottery were so used. Undoubtedly one material which found employment in this respect was waste silk rag. (Needham 1970: 373)
When monks and missionaries introduced Buddhism into China and Japan, they also brought the Indian custom of using a śalākā "small stake, stick, or rod" for wiping away excrement. Translators rendered this Sanskrit word into a number of different neologisms such as Chinese cèchóu 廁籌 and Japanese chūgi 籌木, and the custom of using shit sticks became popular. They had advantages of being inexpensive, washable, and reusable.
The Chinese invented paper around the 2nd century BCE, and toilet paper no later than the 6th century CE, when Yan Zhitui noted, "Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes" (tr. Needham 1986: 123).
The earliest Japanese flush toilets date from the Nara period (710–784), when a drainage system was constructed in the capital at Nara, with squat toilets built over 10–15 cm wide wooden conduits that users would straddle. Archaeological excavations in Nara have also found numerous chūgi wooden sticks that were used for fecal cleansing (Chavez 2014). (Matsui et al. 2003: 133) explain that Japanese archeologists have discovered comparatively few toilets because "the decisive factors in identifying toilets were fly maggots and flat sticks called chugi used as a toilet paper", but preservation of such artifacts requires the environment of a wetland site where organic remains are constantly soaked with groundwater.
Archeologists discovered 2,000-year-old shit sticks in a latrine at Xuanquanzhi 悬泉置, in the town of Dunhuang, Gansu. Xuanquanzhi was a Han dynasty military base and relay station (111 BCE–CE 109) at the eastern end of the Silk Road. Analysis of preserved fecal matter found on cloth covers wrapped around the ends of sticks revealed the remains of roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), tapeworm (Taenia solium), and Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis) (Yeh et al. 2016; Bower 2016; Newitz 2016).
The Chinese and Japanese lexicons have various words meaning "shit stick". They are divisible into compounds of chóu or chū 籌 "small stake or stick", jué or ketsu 橛 "short stake or stick", and other terms.
Chou or Chū
- śalākā any small stake or stick, rod (for stirring [etc]), twig (smeared with lime for catching birds), rib (of an umbrella), bar (of a cage or window), chip, splinter, splint, pencil (for painting or applying collyrium).
- (1) a piece of bamboo (borne as a kind of credential by mendicants and marked with their name).
- (2) the quill of a porcupine.
- (3) an oblong quadrangular piece of ivory or bone (used in playing a partic[ular] game).
- (4) a peg, pin, arrow-head, needle, a probe (used in surgery and sometimes taken as the N[ame] of this branch of, surgery), any pointed instrument.
- (5) a sprout, sprig, shoot of any kind.
- (6) a ruler.
- (7) a toothpick or tooth-brush.
- (8) a match or thin piece of wood (used for ignition by friction).
- (9) a bone.
- (10) a finger, toe.
- (11) a porcupine.
- (12) a partic[ular] thorny shrub, Vanguieria Spinosa.
- (13) the Sārikā bird, Turdus Salica.
- (14) N[ame] of a town.
- (15) of a woman. (abridged, Monier-Williams 1899)
In Indian Buddhist contexts, śalākā particularly meant "a piece of wood or bamboo used for counting or voting". Salaka-Grahapaka was the elected "collector of votes" in the Santhagara "general assembly hall used for voting". The Jain cosmological term salakapurusa "illustrious or worthy person" compounds salaka "stick used for voting" and purusa "person".
Chou 籌 originally meant "arrow used in tóuhú (ancient drinking game decided by the number of arrows thrown into a pot)" or "tally stick (used in counting)", and by extension came to mean "plan; prepare; collect" (Karlgren 1957: 281). Chóu 籌 "shit stick" was first chronicled around the 3rd century CE. The Jin dynasty (265-420) Yulin 語林 by Pei Qi 裴啟 has stories about the especially ostentatious bathrooms of wealthy merchant Shi Chong 石崇 (249-300) (see Needham 1970:373), including one about Shi mocking the politician Liu Shi 劉寔 (220-310) for being unfamiliar with the perfumed shit sticks offered by two female washroom attendants (Hanyu Da Zidian 1989 8:1272).
Cèchóu 廁籌 was first recorded in the (c. 659) History of the Northern Dynasties, when Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi (r. 550-560) said that getting Yang Yin to serve as Prime Minister was a difficult as making him present shit sticks (Hanyu Da Cidian 1993 3: 1251).
The Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (2001) defines chūgi 籌木 or chū 籌 as "chips of wood anciently used instead of toilet paper", and cites the earliest recorded usage of chūgi ちうぎ in Ono Ranzan's 小野蘭山 (1847) Jūtei honzō kōmoku keimō 重訂本草綱目啓蒙 "Illuminated Compendium of Materia Medica". Modern Japanese dialect pronunciations of chūgi include chyōi or chūge in Hida (region) and tsū in Iwate Prefecture.
Translations in English dictionaries of Buddhism include:
- 籌 To calculate, devise, plan; a tally. (Soothill and Hodous 1937)
- Chū 籌 śalākā. 1. A small stake or stick. A piece of bamboo used for counting and voting. 2. A thin piece of wood, used for wiping away excrement. (Daitō 1991: 35)
- 籌 (Skt. śalāka, śalākā; Pāli salākā). A piece of wood or bamboo used for counting and voting. A tally. To calculate, devise, plan. (Skt. kaṭhikā, vartikā, tūlī, tūli, kalâpa) ... A thin piece of wood used for wiping away excrement. (Muller 2014)
Jue or Ketsu
Chinese jué or Japanese ketsu 橛 "short wooden stake; stick; peg; post" is compounded with shi or shǐ 屎 (written with 尸 "body" and 米 "rice") "shit; excrement; dung" into Japanese shiketsu or Chinese shǐjué 屎橛 "shit stick".
Definitions in English dictionaries of Buddhism include:
- 乾屎橛 A stick used in India as 'toilet paper', in China paper, straw, or bamboo. (Soothill and Hodous 1937: 341)
- Kan-shiketsu 乾屎橛 Excrement-wiping spatula. A word of abuse for a person who clings to things. A typical zen term. (Daitō 1991: 181)
- Kan-shiketsu Jap., lit. "dry shit stick"; a Zen expression designating a person who is attached to the world of appearance. Kan-shiketsu is the wato of a famous kōan (example 21 of the Wu-men-kuan). The expression stems from a time in China in which a wooden stick was used instead of toilet paper. (Fischer-Schreiber et al. 1991: 111-112)
- Kan-shiketsu (Jap. 'dry shit stick') Zen description of person attached to the world of appearance. It is the wato of kōan 21 in the Wu-men kuan. (Bowker 2000:306)
- 乾屎橛 'Excrement-wiping spatula.' A stick used in India as 'toilet paper,' in China paper, straw, or bamboo. ... In Chan, a term of abuse for someone who is attached to things. (Muller 2014)
Bi or Hera
Chinese bì 箆 "fine-tooth comb; spatula" or Japanese hera 箆 "spatula; scoop" is compounded into Chinese cèbì 廁箆 "toilet spatula" and Japanese kusobera 糞箆 "shit spatula" or kusokakibera 糞掻く篦 "shit scratching spatula". While most Japanese "shit stick" words have Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings, such as chūgi from chóumù 籌木, both kuso 糞 "shit; crap" (cf. internet slang kuso) and hera 箆 "spatula; scoop" are native Japanese kun'yomi pronunciations of these kanji (which would be read funhei 糞箆 in Sino-Japanese).
Chinese cebi 廁箆 "toilet spatula" is first recorded in Buddhabhadra's (c. 419) Mohe sengqi lü 摩訶僧祇律 translation of the Mahāsāṃghika version Vinaya Pitaka monastic rules; the toilet etiquette section (明威儀法之一) says inside toilets should have privacy partitions, with cebi shit-sticks placed at the side (Hanyu Da Cidian 1993 3: 1251).
Chinese cèjiǎn 廁簡 or 厕简 "toilet stick" is a synonym of cèchóu 廁籌 (above) using the word jiǎn 簡 "bamboo and wooden slips used for writing; letter; select; choose; simple; brief". Cèjiǎn was first recorded in the (c. 1105) Book of Southern Tang "Biographies of Buddhists" section. During the time of Queen Zhou the Elder (r. 961-964), a monk used a sharpened toilet stick to remove a tumor (Hanyu Da Cidian 1993 3: 1251). Jabamukhi salaka (also from Sanskrit śalākā) was "a curved needle (used in traditional Indian cataract surgery)".
The English language has some shit(e) stick lexical parallels to these Asian language terms. The Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. shit, shite n.) quotes two early shit-stick examples: "a hard chuffe, a shite-sticks" (1598) and "a shite-sticks, a shite-rags, that is to say, a miserable pinch-pennie" (1659); and (s.v. poop n.2) defines poop-stick as "a fool, ineffectual person", with the earliest usage in 1930. Shit-sticks is metaphorically parallel to shit-rags (Doyle 1994: 96). In modern usage, Atcheson L. Hench (Hench et al. 1964: 298) suggests calling someone a shit-stick may combine the ideas of shit and stick-in-the-mud.
- shit-stick "a despised person" (US 1964)
- shit sticks! "used as a mildly profane expression of disappointment" (US 1964)
- shit(ty) end of the stick "an unfair position to be in; inequitable treatment" (UK 1974)
Words meaning "shit stick" are associated with the Chan/Zen school of Buddhism. Victor Mair (2008: 107) explains that most great masters in this school "did not directly state what they wanted to say, but used a conclusive shout or a knock on the head with a rod, or yet spoke such words as "dry shit stick" that are situated somewhere between comprehensibility and incomprehensibility in order to make a suggestion that would enable their students to partake of enlightenment."
The Gateless Gate
The Gateless Gate is the Song dynasty Chan master Wumen Huikai's (c. 1228) compilation of 48 kōans. Case 21 is titled Yunmen (kan)shiketsu 雲門(乾)屎橛" "Master Yunmen's (Dried) Shit Stick", referring to the Tang dynasty Chan master Yunmen Wenyan (c. 862-949 CE).
- THE CASE
- A monk asked Yün-men, "What is Buddha?" [雲門因僧問如何是佛]
- Yün-men said, "Dried shitstick." [門云乾屎橛]
- WU-MEN'S COMMENT
- It must be said of Yün-men that he was too poor to prepare even the plainest food and too busy to make a careful draft. Probably people will bring forth this dried shitstick to shore up the gate and prop up the door. The Buddha Dharma is thus sure to decay.
- WU-MEN'S VERSE
- A flash of lightning,
- sparks from flint;
- if you blink your eyes,
- it's already gone. (tr. Robert Baker Aitken 1999: 137)
Aitken (1999: 139) explains "dried shitstick" as "a soft stick that was used the way our ancestors used a corncob in their outhouses". Jack Kerouac (1958: 173) paraphrased "The Buddha is a dried piece of turd".
Owing to the ambiguities of Classical Chinese, the word gānshǐjué or kanshiketsu 乾屎橛 can be parsed as "dried shit-stick" or "dried-shit stick". English translations include:
- "Dried dung." (Senzaki and Reps 1934: 12)
- "A shit-wiping stick." (Hakeda and Haskel 1994: xxxiii)
- "Kanshiketsu! (a dried shit-stick)." (Yamada 2004:102)
- "Kanshiketsu!" (Sekida and Grimstone 2005: 77)
- "Dry shit on a stick!" (Sahn and Gak 2012: 259)
Sekida and Grimstone note: "Kanshiketsu. A shiketsu, or "shit-stick" (kan, dry; shi, shit; ketsu, stick), was used in old times instead of toilet paper. It is at once both private and polluted. But in samadhi there is no private or public, no pure or polluted."
Record of Linji
The Línjì lù or Rinzai roku 臨濟錄 "Record of Linji" contains the compiled sayings of the Tang dynasty Chan master Linji Yixuan or Rinzai Gigen (d. 866 CE). In one famous example of so-called dharma combat, Linji uses the word ganshijue as an epithet, comparable to "You shithead!" (Aitken 1999: 139).
- The master, taking the high seat in the hall, said, "On your lump of red flesh is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet confirmed this, look, look!"
- Then a monk came forward and asked, "What about the true man without rank?"
- The master got down from his seat, seized the monk, and cried, "Speak, speak!"
- The monk faltered.
- Shoving him away, the master said, "The true man without rank—what kind of dried piece of shit is he!" Then he returned to his quarters. (tr. Sasaki 2009: 4-5)
In an editorial note, Kirchner (2009: 131) says Ruth Fuller Sasaki originally translated Chinese ganshijue 乾屎橛 as "shit-wiping stick," saying that the term literally means a "cleaning-off-dung-stick," a smooth stick of bamboo used in place of toilet paper, with 乾 being the verb "to clean." However, Sasaki changed this to "dried piece of shit", following the interpretation of Iriya Yoshitaka (1989: 21), an authority on Tang-dynasty slang, that it means "stick-shaped piece of dung". A comparable usage occurs in the record of Song dynasty Chan master Dahui Zonggao, Dahui Pujue Chanshi yulu 大慧普覺禪師語錄, where the two characters 屎麼 form a noun-compound: "I say to [such stupid monks], 'You’re biting on the dung-sticks of others. You’re not even good dogs!'." Sasaki’s other collaborator, Yanagida Seizan (1977: 52), interprets the term 乾屎橛 to mean "useless dung stick,” explaining that 乾 does not have its usual meaning of "dry", but is synonymous with the homophonous 閑 "useless".
Thích Nhất Hạnh comments,
Scholars still aren't sure if the phrase "a stick of dry fecal matter" means the fecal matter dries and becomes very hard like a stick or that the monks there used sticks as toilet paper. The Zen master expressed his disappointment but at the same time used an image opposite of the one we have of the true person. We tend to think of a true person as pure and noble, someone extraordinary, so the Zen master uses this image of a dry piece of fecal matter or dried excrement on a stick to neutralize our view. If we have a set view about what our true person is, then that view has no more value than a piece of dry fecal matter. (2013: 97)
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