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China's homes: simplicity, few amenities still the rule

It is impossible to judge the extent of rural housing development in the People's Republic of China.

Even so, in village after village, from one end of China to the other, the houses, though small, appear sturdy and neat.

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Obviously, there is clutter -- after all, the Chinese reason, save that thing because it might be needed someday -- but surroundings are spick and span, the hard-packed but upgraded earth swept clean each day as it also is around city homes.

The litter of many American cities is quite a contrast, as visiting Chinese have noted.

The country cottage, or single-story city row house, is a relatively simple stucco or red (sometimes gray) brick, tiled-roof structure, square, its central entrance flanked by two barred windows. The plank door is often padlocked. One or two rooms lie in front, depending on width, and one or two behind.

Newer buildings have running water, older ones do not, but pumps are nearby as are bathhouses.

It is difficult for even new structures to look new for long, however. Coal fires are the culprit as they were in the US up to the 1950s.

Red roofs become grimy, stucco dingy. Where cooking is done in dormitory corridors, they are black. As one help, housewives in both rural and urban dwellings will light their braziers outside their front entrances or cook in a lean-to beside the door.

It's no colder in winter there than inside, at least in central China.

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Family members take their meals sitting on tiny stools or their heels or walking about outside, enamel bowl in one hand, chopsticks in the other.

As the days get shorter in the fall, central Chinese apartments and houses lacking more elaborate heating systems sprout stovepipes through upper casement windows. People use their small cooking braziers for some warmth, the fumes and smoke carried off through the pipes deliberately stretched across their dwelling to allow as much warmth as possible to radiate into the room.

In northern China, smoke from cooking fires has been piped through the raised sleeping platforms for centuries. It has even been sent under floors, but it is colder up there. The Yangtze Valley, in the center, only reaches to the freezing mark.

Construction is substantial in mainland China, although basements are rare. It was a novelty to read of a new subterranean shopping center here built not from basement or subway space but from an old air-raid shelter.

Steam shovels, large and/or small, do most of the heaviest work, yet men and women swarm through the trenches squaring corners and putting everything right. Concrete footers and uprights appear first, then the floors are laid. These consist of 8-foot-long concrete slabs, about 3 inches thick and 18 inches wide, which are pulled and levered into place, floor by floor.

Although hollow, as if for multiple downspouts, these are very heavy. It is annoying to encounter thoughtless drivers (a professional group conscious of its status) leaning on their horns to hurry the wheelbarrowmen straining to move a pair of these slabs.

Interior and exterior walls are filled in after the building's skeleton is in place. Outer bricks may be red and left that way, adding a warmth of color to the area. Usually, however, ''soft'' bricks are used and these must be cemented over. Sometimes waterproofing would be in order.

Floors and stairs are terrazzolike. The result is a collection of plain concrete boxes that reduce drastically the danger from fires.

In older times fires ravaged entire neighborhoods of wooden buildings. Cleaning is also simplified. In public buildings, attendants may mop halls and stairs daily. In apartments, the tenants contribute time and energy periodically. If one shirks, he/she is talked to, reasoned with, and criticized in successive stages of severity until appreciation of the need to share is realized.

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