Lost in Translation: The Baffling World of Bathroom Signs in China

In China’s stylish and upmarket venues, deciphering restroom signs has become a challenge as interior designers put artistry over clarity

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4:48 PM HKT, Thu February 1, 2024 2 mins read

When nature calls and you’re faced with a restroom sign that’s more riddle than symbol, what’s the move?


This was the dilemma that an elderly man recently faced in a mall in Guangzhou. He was unable understand the English labels on bathroom signs, nor their abstract shapes, leading to unintentional entry into the women’s restroom and an accusation of indecency. Fortunately, the mall responded quickly with an apology and a change in their signage. But this wasn’t an isolated incident. Over in Shanghai, a woman took to social media to air her frustrations about similarly vague restroom signs. She described how the abstract designs left her so confused that she found herself waiting to see which gender emerged from the restrooms before daring to step in.


Grabbing the attention of major news channels, these slightly comical but very inconvenient incident highlighted a surprisingly bizarre yet crucial design issue in many of China’s chic venues: the perplexing art of bathroom signage. Some malls’ interior designers seem to prioritize artistic expression over practicality, turning what should be a simple task into a guessing game for many.


Even as early as September 2023, Xiaohongshu users were airing grievances about the issue, lamenting, “Nowadays, it seems you need to know English just to use the bathroom,” and sharing collections of strangely abstracted bathroom signs from across the country.


A collage of bathroom signage complaints. Image via Xiaohongshu.


In the wake of the two incidents mentioned above, an increasing number of users have come forward expressing their bewilderment. One Weibo user commented, “In their pursuit of artistic and symbolic signs, they have strayed from the practical, easy-to-use reality,” criticizing interior designers for losing touch with the practical needs of the public.


This sentiment was humorously encapsulated by another Weibo user who ironically queried, “In China, if you simply write ‘男’ (nán, men) and ‘女’ (, women) on public restroom doors, how many years would you be sentenced for?” The preference for clarity and straightforwardness in such essential public spaces was a common sentiment amongst the online community.


A creative sign for a handicap stall. Image via Xiaohongshu.


In fact, there is already a national standard for bathroom signage. According to the standards set in “Public Information Graphic Symbols - Part 1: Common Symbols,” the symbols for public restrooms should depict a man in a suit and a woman in a dress, using colors like black, blue, or brown. The signs must be fixed next to the door, not on the door itself, to prevent them from being obscured when the door is opened or closed. In 2016, the “Urban Public Toilet Design Standards” were introduced, but these standards didn’t specifically address public restroom signage.


Many cities have also standardized their public restroom signage, including Beijing, Nanjing, and Guangzhou. Some have mandated uniform signage for public restrooms, with a black background featuring the text “男 Men” and “女 Women,” using blue for male figures and pink for female figures.


A pair of especially abstract bathroom signs. Image via Weibo.


In an interview with The Paper, Professor Zou Zhendong from Xiamen University’s School of Journalism and Communication suggested that relevant authorities should establish a “negative list” for restroom signage, clearly specifying which symbols should not be used. This approach would set a defined baseline for restroom signage while allowing room for creativity.


So with the hashtag “Why are public restroom signs becoming increasingly incomprehensible?” having trended on Weibo in January, garnering over 1.48 million views, it seems that some hotels and malls may need to rethink their bathroom signage, toning down the artistry for a little more clarity.


Cover image via Xiaohongshu.

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