Everyday life in Peking; A VISIT TO NO. 20 ANYUAN LANE

Cui Shifu's household at No. 20 Anyuan Lane has a title: Household of the Five Goods. The title, bestowed by the Peking municipality, means that Mrs. Cui's family is good at educating their children, at sanitation, at maintaining family unity, at respecting older people, and at preserving unity with their neighbors.

The Cui family won the title despite the fact that 10 persons from great-grandmother to infant have to live in four small rooms with a total floor space of little more than 360 square feet.

Sprightly Mrs. Ma, Mrs. Cui's mother, is still the matriarch of the family at the age of 97. She has a room to herself, a narrow addition built onto what used to be the kitchen quarters. Her back is straight, she gets around by herself, and spends much time taking care of her great-grandson, a toddler.

Another great-grandson, now a second-year student at Qinghua University (often known as "the MIT of China"), worked for two years after graduating from high school to help support the family. "He used to give me money to buy clothes for myself and for my mother," says Mrs. Cui.

So crowded are the Cui family's quarters that when this boy comes home on weekends, his 11-year-old sister must give up her bed to him and sleep with her parents on their double bed.

Under the leafy shade of the Chinese scholar tree (kuaishu), the Cuis and their neighbors live in sloping, tile-roofed, one-storey houses nearly 100 years old. The houses face onto interior courtyards. The ensemble, known as si-he-yuan (pronounced "sss-hee-yuan"), or four-sided courtyard, is Peking's most typical architectural style. In their modest way, these courtyards duplicate the style of the Forbidden City, with the main gate on the south side and the most important dwelling unit across the courtyard from it. To the outsider, the si-he-yuan presents a forbidding gray-walled exterior. All the animation, all the daily life of the courtyard-dwellers, goes on inside.

In prerevolutionary times a single family usually occupied one si-he-yuan. Today, high-ranking cadres, well-known painters and writers, and other privileged people sometimes have an entire courtyard to themselves. Usually, however, there are anywhere from two to six families occupying a single courtyard, sometimes more.

Most of the courtyards in Anyuan Lane have a single, common water tap in the center, and common toilets tucked away in the rear. The kitchens are bricked-in extensions on the courtyard side of the original pavilions, so that everyone knows what everyone else is having for dinner. Rows of tomatoes lined the window shelves of nearly everyone's kitchens not long ago, ready to be boiled and bottled in preparation for the long, harsh, vegetable-short winter. No one had a refrigerator or a telephone. The Cuis, however, were the proud possessors of a small washing machine and their own water tap.

The street outside the Cuis' courtyard used to be the site of a civil magistrate's imposing office in the days of the Qing (Ching) Dynasty. But no one in the neighborhood knew exactly where the magistrate's office may have been.

"Probably it's been broken up into a number of separate courtyards now," one young man said. "In any case, this is a typical Peking neighborhood. None of us are very rich. Nor is anyone very poor. Most of us are office or factory workers, or teachers, or in various trades."

The Anyuan Lane Residents Committee, elected by the residents themselves, represents some 2,800 people in 700 households fronting on three alleys off Anyuan Lane, explain the committee chairman, Mrs. Hu Shufang. For many years Mrs. Ma was committee member for women's activities, and Mrs. Cui also briefly held this position.

Today Mrs. Zhao Guifang, a 60-year-old grandmother, is responsible for women's affairs. Mrs. Liu Na takes care of health, Mrs. Zhi guilan of neighborhood reconciliation, and Mrs. Han Jingyi of security.

The committee is proud of the residents' record for sanitation and health in recent years, and also for security. There has not been a single robbery in five years, Mrs. Han said. Most residents have lived in the area for 20 years or more, and the elderly women chatting with each other on stools in their courtyards or on the street keep a sharp eye out for "thieves and enemy agents" -- the latter on echo of the hypertense days of the Cultural Revolution.

What about reconciliation? In the courtyard where five or six families live cheek by jowl with one another, a continual succession of daily compromises is required to maintain harmony, within and without families. Mrs. Zhi is the committee member responsible for reconciliation, but the committee as a whole has to pitch in when difficult cases arise.

Two families, for instance, used to be bosom friends. Then there was an illness in one family. With only one water tap in the courtyard, the family with the ill member felt the other family was inconsiderate when it insisted on noisily doing its laundry during the noon siesta hour. Other small incidents exacerbated feelings on both sides.

"We called in each family separately, then both together, Mrs. Zhi said. "Finally each apologized to the other, and shook hands. The whole process took about a week.

During the cultural Revolution and the rule of the "gang of four" (1966-76), Anyuan Lane was plastered with slogans and young people rebelled against their elders, as they did everywhere else in China. Today Li Yushan, a retired schoolteacher persecuted as a rightist during that period of madness, make up stories to tell his three-year-old granddauther and other neighborhood children, stories that will teach them the old virtues of courtesy and respect for their elders.

"It's not always easy," Mr. Li said, "beacuse the parents of these children were themselves the victims of the Cultural Revolution. They want their children to have the old virtues, but it is going to take time to repair all the scars of the Cultural Revolution. In another four or five years, perhaps, we can begin to get somewhere."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.