Creature comforts come slowly to Chinese households

The People's Republic of China has come a long way in providing solid shelter for the masses it inherited in 1949 and also for some of the millions born since. But that task is not completed, and many creature comforts and conveniences are yet to come.

Limitation on living space has a crippling effect on the furnishings acquired by young people. Cost can also be a serious problem unless one is frugal or comes from a small family so parents can help with wedding expenses. Grooms provide furniture, brides bedding and kitchen items.

Young people earn, together, 70-80 yen ($45 maximum) a month. A good bit of this can be husbanded without much difficulty. Essential furnishings are possible about 15 months after concentrated savings begin. Then the wedding takes place.

Here in central China another problem looms - quality. In the major cities, conditions are different, and a wider range exists. Everyone seeks Shanghai pens , bags, bicycles and appliances in preference to local ones, which are considered inferior.

Many Chinese here are dissatisfied with the style and construction of furniture and eagerly watch industrial exhibits for innovations. You can buy used items, or new ones which are available in small shops and in department stores. You can also hire a carpenter to build some for you. For 3 yen ($1.70) a day, plus meals, for about two weeks, plus some 200 yen ($113) for lumber, he will provide you with the essentials.

Hardly a piece of the Chinese furniture favored in the West is in evidence here, and what is offered today is no offspring of that old style. Craftsmanship is missing. Style and elegance, run down by the Cultural Revolution, have been slow in reviving.

Some of the old furniture was siphoned into the Friendship Stores in tourist centers for sale for hard currency. Some was dragged into the streets by youthful mobs during the Cultural Revolution and burned as some of the ''olds'' to be destroyed. And in the country, during land reform in the 1950s, a landlord's surplus belongings were divided among his tenants and other poor whose own meager possessions were quite different.

The common attitude is: ''Why those old things when modern furniture is more comfortable?'' Like the apartments, today's central Chinese furniture offerings are Western in origin, utilitarian, and culturally rootless. Yet in its modernity lies its appeal - it provides change, with no ties to the ''backward'' past.

Walk the streets of an interior town or city and you will find carpenters building furniture, weather permitting, on sidewalks or streets before their shop-homes, making ''24 legs'' for someone. Twenty-four legs? Well, a table has four legs, a bed four, a chest four, etc. Allusion to 24 legs or 36 legs is a dead giveaway to a betrothal.

One naturally selects according to space and pocketbook. Probably the least well-off Chinese would have a bed, a table, a chest for eating/cooking equipment and assorted small stools whose legs multiply so fast there is dispute whether to count them or not.

For those with more parental help or longer engagements to enable more savings, the basics would be a double bed; a wardrobe with hanging space, shelves or drawers, and perhaps a mirrored door; a 30-inch square table said to be sufficient for eight who hunch together in companionable proximity, two to a side; a chest including a dish shelf behind sliding glass doors; and two straight or lounge chairs. Add an end table, a bedside stand, and a chest, and you have ''36 legs.''

The cost of Chinese ''modern'' is comparative. It may be low cost, yet on a low income it represents a relatively big bite all at one time. Although there is a hint of long-term payments, such credit is apparently limited in the areas where it is available and used for the really expensive items running many hundred yen (color TVs, for example; private automobiles are nonexistent). The charge for long-term credit is nil. It usually comes from one's work unit or through an organization faintly resembling a credit union.In central China the double bed with its matchstick four posters and heavy woven ''springs'' runs about 150 yen ($85). The four 3 inch by 3 inch boards framing the wicker springs are massive, the surface very firm. It can be restrung again and again so undoubtedly it lasts a lifetime. Mattresses are not used. When summer heat wanes , a cotton pad is laid on the ''springs'' to keep cold air from coming through the wicker. In extremely cold weather, layers of newspapers can be added (or more pads).Wardrobes run from 100-150 yen; dining tables, 30 yen ($17); a folding metal-based table, 50 yen ($28); desks, 30-50 yen depending on the drawer space; an upholstered chair, sometimes in cloth, usually in a sculptured vinyl, 125 yen ($70), its unfinished back primly pushed flat against a wall. Sofas are not much more, only 135 yen ($76), but space is at a premium so they are rarely in homes.Appliances are generally costly by comparison with the West. An elaborate push-button electric fan, with timer, 180 yen ($102) for the preferred, free-standing, tall floor model. Queuing is not as common in China as in Eastern Europe, but it occurs in food stores at rush hours and for special offers. As with food it is for service, the item already having been allotted to the customer.Radios are 100-180 yen; television varies, say 600 yen ($340). The undercounter refrigerators are the same. An electric iron is more competitive - 12-14 yen (maximum $8).In the bride's area, aluminum cookware is the rage. A 3 -quart covered pan costs about 4 yen ($2.25), a 1-quart enameled covered casserole useful for cooking or for carrying meals out of the dining halls is 3 yen ($1.70). Pottery is less expensive and, to foreigners, more appealing. An earthenware soup pot is a great slow-cooker. Steel woks are universal and hot pots are on display.Preparing vegetables, chopping, or mixing are usually done on the floor, the cook sitting on one of the ubiquitous 6 in. stools. This is cultural habit; the table is used as well. The coal-fed cooking brazier is in the corridor, along with the bicycle and washing machine. The latter cannot, of course, be attached there. It must be filled and emptied by hand.Manufacturers assign a number of appliances, TVs, and the like to work units at periodic intervals. Employees submit their names if interested.Delivery is the responsibility of the purchaser. To move across town or to haul heavy items, one requests the use of a truck and driver from his work unit. Generally, however, one hires, or uses, a friend's bicycle cart. It is also common to see furniture being carried home on the back of the owner's bicycle.Time after time one reads reports wherein a Chinese states with justifiable pride, ''Today we have a happy life. We have a radio, TV, electric fan, watches, a sewing machine.''Another, listing similar possessions, says, ''We are comfortable, content, and rather well-off. Our combined income is 130 yen ($73) a month which supports us, two young boys, and my husband's parents. They're retired peasants with no income.''The three families cited are typical of the general population where workers today often make more than these families. The masses have come a long way in contemporary China.

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