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Friday, October 14, 2011

Asian Miscellany (4)—Housing in Modern China

[a] Architecture RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of December 20th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about housing in modern the space of only 1,000 words. I "spend" a little more verbiage than that here, but not much. The approach I have taken is that it is a mistake only to look at the urban skyline (stunning though it is), and an even more serious error to forget the social life that surrounds (and inhabits) all architecture.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
[b] Vertical RF
It is almost impossible to speak of “housing” in China without discussing urban and rural locales. Although the various housing options found in today’s People’s Republic of China cover a vast array of styles and strategies, the greatest differences can be found between dwellings in cities, on the one hand, and rural housing, on the other. It is not as predictable a matter as it might seem after reading this title and first sentence. Not unlike experiences people have in North America and Europe, rural housing (especially among the newly affluent) can be spacious, even magisterial, while urban housing can be cramped and relentlessly “vertical,” an issue that has caused enormous concern in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and other large cities after a series of disastrous fires in the last decade. China is ever changing, and it can be seen quite clearly in housing patterns.

Traditional Housing

The Chinese family ideal from earliest times centered around what is called the “round” family. This almost unattainable ideal of five generations living under one roof remained has persisted even into the present. Today, when better health care make it at least a theoretical possibility, families (and housing units) have been broken down into two- or three-generation housing (and social) structures. In earlier times, it was scarcely even possible to imagine five generations being alive at the same time. Indeed, one of the classic works of literature dealing with family issue—the seventeenth century novel Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢)—only has three generations cast about its sprawling narrative.

[c] Gate RF
So what can be made of an idealistic vision of social life that almost never happened? To begin, it has played into many aspects of architecture and planning, even into the present. Chinese family life was traditionally tied to the land, and the rural home of families with even moderate income was one that had the potential to house diverse family members and generations. Indeed, even to this day, the Chinese calendar has a series of activities to do (and others to avoid) that speaks far more directly to a sprawling rural housing complex than urban apartment life. These include “creating irrigation ditches,” “erecting beams and fences,” and so forth. Housing is as much an idea as a practicality (something every operation from Home Depot to IKEA understands), and the idea in China has always held the potential, whether realized or not, to include more people.

Rural Housing
Farming life still dominates much of China, and the range of dwellings that fit those needs are diverse. In the poorest villages, the structures are quite modest and sometimes—as I have seen in parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi—built to make use of hillsides or natural cave configurations. In more affluent farming villages, it is very common to see two or three story houses—often quite grand and built with income that was not available in such venues just forty years ago. The contrast between the traditional one-story structures (often with added segments to accommodate growing or coalescing kinship configurations) and these shiny, towering buildings can be startling.

[d] Farm RF

A further constant in rural life should be mentioned, even as we remember that—even today—there is much more to China than its major cities. Farming life requires housing that can respond, as it were, to the needs of agricultural labor. From earliest times, housing was created near the fields so that laborers could work the soil during the height of the growing season. These structures remain a significant part of social life, especially from planting to harvesting, all over China. The relationship between the “homestead,” so to speak, and the smaller huts for laborers might recall for some readers the kind of joint (and highly “gendered”) responsibilities of workers on American farms several decades ago, with meals brought to workers in the fields and workers laboring until well after sunset. The dynamic persists all over China today.

Urban Housing

It has been useful to go “against the grain” of travelers’ immediate experiences, so that we do not let the rapid changes taking place on China’s urban landscape dominate our thinking about this large and complex society. Nonetheless, a drive through any large city in China will show not only a breathtaking array of skyscrapers, but advertisements everywhere for condominiums, housing units, and apartments. Saving for one’s first residence is one of the most formidable—and stressful—matters for any urban dweller in China. The expectation that a young man be able to provide at least a nice apartment as part of the marriage “contract” has become cemented in most discussions of the marital alliance. It is often a very difficult equation. Without help from family members—including somewhat extended kinship networks—it is often impossible for even a university graduate just a few years into a first job to buy an apartment on his—or her—own.

[e] Assembly RF
It would be hard to know this from the advertisements, though. Everywhere, in large cities, one sees trendy, new housing being constructed. Huge billboards proclaim, in text and pictures, the comfortable life that will be found in the new units, and they are meant to sell out long before they are built. Little is left to chance, including the matter (extremely important to this day) of “lucky” phone numbers. I am always struck by the range of apartment complex telephone numbers with “8” in them (one of the “luckiest” numbers in Chinese culture, and one for which a company must pay significant money. “Call 8886-8889” or combinations of “8s,” “6s,” and other numbers is so common that it is easy to forget that they are serving a combined cultural and economic goal.

Not far behind the new housing complexes (purchased, in many ways, to leverage the future) is the explosion in home décor stores. IKEA has outlets in several large cities, and indigenous versions of it can be found in even towns of modest size.  Not very long ago in Xi’an (the home of the terra-cotta warriors and several early Chinese dynastic capitals), I heard an advertisements that represents a significant change in beliefs about housing in China. 我爱我家, said the breathless, maternal voice. That phrase (“I love my home”—in the sense of its décor—would likely have stunned people from fifty or more years ago).[1] The globalization (and selling—or “commodification”) of the individual home is blazing through urban China, and it is a very new process. Identification with the home and its furnishings represents a subtle but significant shift from the always expandable hub of kinship energy from earlier times.

  ***  ***
[f] Teahouse RF

Nonetheless, it is important not to over-interpret these changes. The them of "expandability" with which we began is exactly where we will finish. Whether we speak of sprawling seventeenth century landed estates, rural housing and its focus on the fields to be worked, or a rapidly changing urban high-rise culture (with its attendant—and powerfully real—terror of fire) the most powerful theme is its ability, or at least the ingenious capabilities of its inhabitants, to expand to meet the needs of grandma, grandpa, out-of-town relatives, or the little cherub who will occupy the next generation. Social adaptability remains foremost in the housing world, and that remains as true for Shanghai as it does for Huayin, the little village at the foot of China's northern sacred mountain.

[1] I just learned from a colleague that 我爱我家 was also the title of a Chinese television drama in the mid-1990s.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children 

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