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From Mao's House to Our House : A Domestic Revolution Is Under Way in the People's Republic. : Still, the Chinese House Is Not Yet a Westerner's Idea of Home.

March 15, 1987|WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI | Witold Rybczynski is the author of "Home: A Short History of an Idea" (Viking).

It was my first visit to a modern home in mainland China, where I had been invited to lecture on housing at Shanghai's Tongji University. We stood in a small hallway that also served as a dining room; it held a tiny table and three folding chairs. The kitchen nearby was not much larger than a walk-in closet. It contained an enameled cast-iron sink with a single tap protruding from the wall. Beside the sink were a small counter and a hot plate. Outside the kitchen I could see a shallow balcony, whose main function seemed to be to dry clothes. Off the hallway was the bathroom; unabashedly, I looked in. It contained a squatting- type toilet and a sink, but no shower or bath--a metal tub hung on a hook on the wall. As our host showed us around, he told us that he considered himself lucky to have such a modern apartment. He worked as an environmental engineer for the municipality; his wife was a teacher at a day-care center. Since it was a holiday, they were both at home. Their daughter was visiting friends.

"Let's have some tea," he said, inviting us into an adjacent room, which was small and crowded, serving not only as a living room but also as the family's bedroom. Most of the space was taken up by two beds--a double and a single. The room also contained a small desk, a bookshelf and a cupboard squeezed into the corner. There is a traditional Chinese saying that "a beautiful room need not be large, and fragrant flowers need not be many," but one would have to be a skillful interior decorator indeed to create beauty out of such cramped surroundings. The whole flat occupied by this family of three was considerably smaller than the average American motel unit.

The room was neat and clean but lacked warmth; utility, not beauty, seemed to be its occupants' main concern. The white walls were bare except for two unframed drawings and a calendar. We sat on uncomfortable folding chairs, drinking jasmine tea; outside, the spring rain beat gently against the windowpane. It was cool in the apartment; I looked for a radiator, but there didn't seem to be one. My host explained that the Chinese authorities have decided that, to conserve fuel, home heating is not required south of the 35th Parallel. I was glad I was not in this uninsulated building in January, when temperatures regularly fall below freezing.

The small flat, though not exactly cozy, did at least have the basic amenities. There was electricity, running water--albeit also cold--and gas for cooking. Of course, these are ordinary and unremarkable things, everyday conveniences that hardly bear mention.

Wallposters in Beijing and student demonstrations in Shanghai--not indoor plumbing--are what make headlines, and it is easy to forget what a novelty such domestic comforts represent for the majority of Chinese. Sixty years ago, when more than 60% of American homes had electricity (and when more than half of those homes already contained electric irons and vacuum cleaners), most Chinese families lived in the sort of wretched conditions described by the writer Yu Dafu in his 1923 short story, "Nights of Spring Fever." His protagonist lives in a one-room garret in Shanghai's International Settlement. His room lacks even a window, let alone facilities for washing or cooking. He eats cold food--bread and bananas-- and once a month treats himself to a public bath. His only possessions are his b1869572979factory girl--is slightly better off. Her room has a window. How these two would have admired the tiny flat I had just seen, its fresh air and sunlight, its electric lamps, its plumbing. How they would have relished the achievements of a domestic revolution, a change as significant as--and probably more lasting than--Mao's attempt at cultural reform.

A domestic revolution is under way in China, but it is hardly complete. Walking through the narrow lanes linked with tiny hovels, I could see that for many, little has changed in the last 60 years. We were stopped by a man who invited us into his house, where he lived with his wife and child in a room about 10 feet square. We exchanged cigarettes and smoked, sitting on the bed; there was no other furniture except a dresser, on which was balanced a large, improbable cassette player, and a sm1634495520neighbors, a privy, outdoors in the yard, where they also collected water from an outdoor tap and where they did their washing. Cooking was done on the stoop, and as we left, I noticed a small brazier and a pile of briquettes of compressed coal dust outside the door.

Li Dehua, director of the Shanghai Architectural Society, told me that more than a third of the city's population is still living in overcrowded, pre-Liberation housing. Although the official planning norm for new housing is 60 square feet of living space per inhabitant, in the old neighborhoods of Shanghai the actual amount of living space was half that. (A single bed takes up at least 18 square feet.)

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