- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Here is a tale of many toilets, and it is a delicate tale, indeed.

China's official news agency, Xinhua, quietly announced Thursday that archeologists had found civilization's oldest toilet, tucked up in the hills of a central province.

It's a doozy.

Crafted of 6-foot stone slabs, this commodious commode had "running water and seating," designed for a king of the West Han Dynasty some 2,200 years ago and set in the middle of his sprawling underground palace for the afterlife.

"This top-grade stool is the earliest of its kind ever discovered in the world," the Chinese archaeologists noted in their report. "The Chinese used the world's earliest water closet, which is quite like what we use today."

Xinhua had its own spin on it all, though.

"Chinese Made World's Earliest Water Closet," the agency flatly stated.

This unleashed a veritable torrent of puns from a bemused global press as they became privy to such privy news.

"China flushed with pride over loo find," noted the London Daily Telegraph, adding that the country's "propaganda machine lost no time in staking a claim to the invention."

The discovery "has flushed Britain's claim to have invented the water closet down the pan," proclaimed the South China Morning Post, while Reuters determined "the chain is pulled on Britain's Crapper."

Thomas Crapper, that is. Around 1865, the London plumber held nine patents on various drains and water closet siphoning mechanisms and served as the royal sanitary engineer. Most historians concur that he did not invent the flushing toilet.

Academes, in fact, continue to mull the subject over.

"Claims to having pioneered the flush toilet can prove a controversial subject," the BBC pointed out Thursday in its version of the story, adding that some experts believe the toilet was invented by "Queen Elizabeth I's godson."

That is only the beginning of the mythology, though. The toilet's pedigree has been duly traced over the years by historians, archeologists and members of London's official Toilet Museum. These experts trace the device back to the Palace of Knossos in Crete, where stone water closets had matching cisterns 3,000 years ago.

Then there was Sir John Harrington, who perfected toilet valves and created something he called the "Necessary" back in 1596.

Others beg to differ.

Bindeshwar Pathak, curator of the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi, believes that toilets emerged so to speak up to 4,500 years ago in Egypt, India, Greece and possibly Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

The toilet, he noted during the International Symposium on Public Toilets a few years ago, is "a critical chapter in the history of human civilization," and subject of song, story, ballet and poem.

It is "the recess of great dignity," wrote French poet Gilles Corrozal.

Toilets make American news as well.

When divers discovered and retrieved the 150-pound flush toilet from the Civil War ironclad warship Monitor, it was billed as a "historic rarity" and "an artifact" by straight-faced journalists who had to restrain their glee.

News of toilet innovation including incinerating, composting and self-deodorizing toilets is a mainstay on the home-design front.

But back to that old Chinese toilet.

It signals, perhaps, part of a new trend in the country to rediscover and lay claim to a cross section of cultural roots. China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage recently included the "largest antique brewery and the oldest cookbook" to their list of "Top 10 Archeological Finds."

Some find this tendency irksome.

"China takes intense pride in having invented gunpowder, the printing press, paper money, kites and the magnetic compass," said David Rennie of the London Daily Telegraph's office in Beijing.

But their claims don't end there, he added. The Chinese also say they invented golf, ice cream, forks, spoons, pizza and discovered America 2,500 years before Columbus.

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