The new Chinese consumerism. Stronger economy means Chinese can now buy appliances, `frivolities'

This report came in the form of a letter, one of a series sent by Ms. Wallace, who bicycled across the Chinese countryside for three months last summer. Clothes are the first clue: Where are the blue ``Mao jackets'' and baggy trousers?

Can these young women cycling down the country road in pink flowered blouses and bright chiffon hair ribbons really be farm workers?

Even the visiting Westerner who thinks he is prepared is caught off guard. There are no food lines, no militaristic hordes of joggers out running for the revolution in the morning. Women linger over displays of perfume and nail polish in department stores. And even in small towns, lovers hold hands in public.

Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and instituted economic reforms, the Chinese have embraced change enthusiasti-cally. The economy everywhere is now heavily influenced by the work of individuals out to make a bit of profit for the family coffers. Change has been more profound than what is seen in the street stalls; it has percolated through Chinese society. More wealth and a stronger overall economy have created consumers who are for the first time buying appliances for their homes and clothes t hat would have been considered frivolous a scant few years ago.

Yueyang is a busy little town in Hunan Province four days inland on the Yangtze River, where stylish clothes are more accessible than in other provincial towns, thanks to the river traffic. Two young women slowly pushing bicycles along a broad boulevard one noon were coolly oblivious to the backward glances they got. They were sporting short-shorts, T-shirts, and chunky high heels. And, in case anyone had doubts about their fashion consciousness, they were wearing nylon stockings.

The humble nylon stocking, it appears, has taken on a special significance. The rage is to wear nylons just below the hem line of skirts or shorts -- a line that varies from top of the leg to a couple inches below the knee. The stockings are usually thick and come in shades of beige that are far from ``natural.''

Westerners have a hard time understanding this fashion. One American woman who worked in China for several months asked some friends why there was always a gap between nylons and clothes. ``I thought it looked awful. But they wanted people to know they were wearing stockings. It's important to show you can afford them.''

The shorts-and-stockings look reappears in some of the most unlikely places. Two Westerners were startled during a climb up Mount Taishan -- the most sacred of Chinese mountains and a hot and sweaty vertical climb of several thousand steps.

Climbers come wearing all kinds of garb. But one woman stopped the Westerners in their tracks. She was laboring her way up in bright yellow, skimpy shorts, stockings which left a two-inch fleshy gap, and thin little spike heels.

Older women and businessmen still wear mainly gray or blue trousers with simple white shirts. Younger people and laborers tend to fancy T-shirts. Men seem to go for hot pink or blue string vests. Women like to wear skirts.

Despite its current reputation as a textile center, China's output has barely met its own needs, and fabric has long been rationed. In 1970 each person was allowed about 11 yards of fabric a year. Ten years later that had increased to about 14 yards -- still leaving little cloth for more than the essentials.

The other reason why Chinese wore drab clothes for so long was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when interest in fashion was equated with a politically dangerous bourgeois life style. That had begun to change by 1978, but only in recent months has the population as a whole shifted away from ``revolutionary'' garb. The government acknowledged the trend last year, when the Light Industry Ministry conducted a body size and shape survey of 400,000 people in an attempt to set up standard clothes sizes for the first time.

The freer economy has created consumers with money to spend and has made more goods available.

Two tourists who stayed a night in Yizhang, Hunan, spent the next morning scrubbing their road-dusty clothes in a pail of soapy water at their hotel's outdoor tap. A laughing woman came running up to get them to stop. They wondered if there might be a water shortage, but seconds later she was rolling in a small green electric washing machine. The machines are not sophisticated by Western standards, but at $80 they are affordable to some of the new consumers.

Television sets are also doing a booming business. In Changsha, Hunan, there are no street lights, and cars and trucks use only their dimmers. Bicycles without lights drift through the dark streets like ghosts. The only steady glow comes from small restaurants' overhead bulbs and the blue gleam of TV sets parked on the sidewalks, each surrounded by dozens of viewers glued to the nightly serial ``Dream of Red Mansions'' -- the Chinese 18th-century ``Dynasty'' or ``Dallas.''

Televisions -- like just about everything else -- are carried on bicycles, usually on the heavy, no-frills bicycle that is the Chinese family vehicle. But even that trustworthy vehicle's role in Chinese life is changing.

Peking is the scene of young couples who court on bicycles; it is not uncommon to see a couple gliding down the street on their bikes holding hands, or more often, with the man holding onto the woman's elbow.

There are more and more vehicles on the road as individuals, particularly farmers, begin to be able to afford their own small trucks. But the old, black, family two-wheeler is still king of the road.

On a balmy Saturday on the outskirts of Peking, a father was cycling down the shady road of apple-orchard country giving his baby daughter her bottle as she sat on the handlebars. A young couple pedaled side by side, hand in hand. A teen-aged boy behind them rode steadily, balancing Grandma on the back while she pertly held a black umbrella to shade her from the sun.

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