If you arrive in China during warm weather, it will likely only take a day or two before you encounter your first bare bum in public.  While it is becoming less and less common in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the 开裆裤 (pronounced kai dang ku), or split pants are still alive and well all over the rest of China.  I for one hope they never leave; I think they are fun (no, really!), affordable, and environmentally and developmentally advantageous over disposable or cloth diapers (nappies).

please don't do anything funny while your up there...

The advantages of using split pants instead of cloth or disposable diapers are many, though it took me quite some time to realize many of them.  At first when I arrived in China I just felt awful for the poor mothers who needed to buy expensive carpet cleaners to clean their rugs daily instead of simply changing a diaper.  It seemed like an unreasonable amount of work just to save on the cost of diapers.  I wrote home and sent pictures joking about how peculiar this was to me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the split pants are not just great on the environment (*An estimated 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the US, resulting in a possible 3.4 million tons of used diapers adding to landfills each year), but they are also good for the child. I spoke with many mothers from Jiangyin to Beijing and all the way back south to Nanjing.  I discovered that these mothers instinctively seem to know when their infant is going to need to relieve himself.  They can notice patterns related to other activities like nursing and sleeping.  I discovered that most babies need to pee soon after they wake up, and at predictable times after nursing.  Not only do the babies become predictable, they also have cues that they give to their parents that may include a type of frown, or holding still, or squirming.  Regardless of what the cue is, the parents learn to watch for it and be prepared.  When the baby needs to be relieved, the mother or father holds the baby in a specific position every time, and makes the same sound every time– usually a SSSS  SSSS or a shuu shuu sound.  Before too long the baby actually makes the sound when they need to go.  Many of these mothers claim that their child had become completely potty trained by about 4-6 months!  Can you imagine!?!

The website babycottonbottoms.com claims that an average baby in America will go through several thousand diapers in a lifetime, and most are not completely independent of diapers until about 20 or even 30 months!  Finally, Consumer Reports (July 8, 2009) claims that the average child will go through $1500-2000 worth of diapers before they are potty trained.  For many Chinese, this was an impossible expense until the last ten years or so.  Also, for these Chinese babies, diaper rashes are non-existent.

While I certainly didn’t understand or appreciate kai dang ku before, I honestly think they are great now!  If any of my readers know of other reasons the Chinese use these special pants please do share!


*Carl Lehrburger, Jocelyn Mullen, and C. V. Jones, “Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis,” January 1991

15 Responses to Chinese Diapers/Nappies: The Split-Pants Phenomenon

  1. Laura says:

    In the US the term for this method is called “elimination communication”–but sadly no split pants 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Is elimination communication popular anywhere in the States? Do you know how quickly babies are potty trained with this method?

      • Christine G says:

        Yes, elimination communication is popular among parents who practice attachment parenting. From what I understand, the children often potty train around 1.5. However, some people believe that the parents are more trained than the children. 🙂

        • Steve says:

          Thanks for the input, I really wasn’t aware this was on option in America until these past couple of days… I looked at your blog, it looks great!

  2. Jingjing says:

    A very interesting issue!! Maybe you could try asking those babies next time, “are you happy with it?” 🙂 But diapers really cost parents a lot in China! Young couples always say that they are working hard for diapers and milk powder!

  3. Frank says:

    i think your research on the reasons of choosing split pants rather than nappies is already quite comprehensive. another reason is probablly it is like a tradition. for the babies born probably one decade ago, everyone went through this “baby fashion”. some families just modify a used pant into a split pant … it helps to make the best use of resources… in China, it is a virtue to be hard working and simple living(艰苦朴素),one thing consistent with the teaching of Gospel. haha.

    • Steve says:

      great insight Frank, I suppose with all the benefits of using the split pants, it was never BECAUSE of the benefits that parents raised babies with them– it was simply the most practical solution.

  4. Trent Lamb says:

    what isn’t mentioned is that those who still use these pants also allow these children to eliminate pretty much anywhere – on a sidewalk, in the mall, or the living room (as I recently witnessed in a small hostel in JIangxi province). So there are some drawbacks.

    • Steve says:

      So true! On facebook someone mentioned that they had previously been “relieved” on, which could make for a pretty awkward moment…

  5. Col says:

    hahahahaha!!! This is the first time that I’ve read this in a Chinese culture forum. Love your work Steve 🙂

    And were you the photographer???

    I wonder what happens in winter, in particular where it snows…

    • Steve says:

      Glad you like it Colin! I don’t think the snow slows anybody down. Often parents will dress their child in five or six layers during the winter, but each layer has a similarly placed strategic hole.

    • Lilia says:

      To answer your question Col, there is a way of covering the bum up in winter – it’s a little cotton padded blanket with straps on one end (it’s called “屁帘儿” in Beijing) that you tie it up around the baby’s waist so that the blanket covers where the hole is. hahaha…. I am sure there is still wind comes through but better than nothing! 😀

      Thanks Steve for raising such an interesting topic.

  6. I do Diaper Free / EC with my 7 month old (been doing it since about 3 months). There are a growing number of split pants available in Canada and the USA. Check out http://www.ecwear.com/Split-Pants/ and http://www.etsy.com/shop/rebourne?ref=seller_info. For an intro to Elimination Communication you can check out by blog post http://theartandsciencedoula.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/what-is-elimination-communication-imagine-a-world-without-diapers/

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