BEIJING - Kate and Leo did it on the Titanic, so why shouldn't Chinese? After all, the habit goes back five millenia.
Because it's Olympics year, that's why. And the capital city, which will host the games, is planning its first "No Spitting Day" this year with the goal of eradicating a top etiquette no-no. But the pronouncement by the city's public health authority on Thursday drew decidedly mixed reactions from local residents.
"The latest hygienic drive aims to eradicate the bad habit of spitting and promote a more civilized life style," said Liu Ying, a Beijing Municipal Bureau of Health official.
She noted that spitting was a major cause of the spread of respiratory diseases, especially in spring, echoing a Chinese slogan: "Spitting kills even more than an atomic bomb."
Liu said the idea was inspired by the "Queuing Day" and "Seat Offering Day", two days newly designated by the Beijing Municipal Government each month to promote better manners.
Details of how the new day would work were still dribbling in. But it quickly drew reaction from netizens. Some called it a "must" before the Olympic Games, while others said it was "needless and unfeasible".
"I think it's healthier to spit rather than to swallow," said a netizen who called himself Mop Paparazzi on the Mop.com.
Liu, however, said people didn't understand the purpose of the drive.
"We are calling for stopping the rampant spitting on the pavement, not urging everyone not to spit at all," she explained. "You can wrap your spit with a napkin and throw it into a trash bin," she added.
Spitting, littering and barbecuing in the street were identified by Beijing residents as the most intolerable bad manners to be stamped out ahead of the Olympics, according to a government survey of more than 200,000 people in the capital
The Olympic host has taken a series of measures to curb spitting, such as the distribution of spit sacks and a 50-yuan (US$7) fine for spitters.
A recent survey by the Beijing-based Renmin University found that in 2007, 2.54 percent of people surveyed in Beijing still spat in public, down by 2.36 percentage points from 2006. Or at least, that was how many admitted doing so. Many Chinese take the practice for granted.
Some netizens tried to justify the habit by quoting 5,000-year-old proverbs.
"We used to say that China is a so large a country that one spit from every Chinese may drown all people in a small country, which shows we have a long tradition of spitting," said netizen Songbce in the forum of Sina.com, one of China's largest portal sites. "Even foreigners like spitting," he said, basing his argument on the scene in 'Titanic' where Leonardo DiCaprio taught Kate Winslet how to spit.
Some people attributed the spitting to Beijing's bad air quality and others said, half in jest, that it reflected improved living standards: according to traditional Chinese medicine theories, meat leads to sputum.
"To eradicate spitting, Beijing should do more to stop smoking in the public places since smokers are always spitters," said a doctor surnamed Wang in the respiratory department of Beijing Puren Hospital. "The city should do more to ensure a clean Olympic Games," he said.