An inside look at university living in today's China

Students and faculty in the People's Republic of China roll out each morning to the strident ringing of the class bells or to loudspeaker music. Some awaken to the hauntingly sweet tones of a flute wafted gently on the quiet air.

At that hour there is no background traffic roar. ''The East Is Red,'' once heard everywhere each morning, is no longer widespread. It remains the signature sound of Radio Peking, though, which begins its programming about the same time the class bells sound.

The hours of rising are set by the local administration, whether at school, farm, or factory, and so they vary in place and season - in the universities, it's 6:30 in the winter and 6/or 5:30 in spring and fall. One need not get up then, but three to five roommates may make it difficult to remain abed, or at least asleep. Then, too, school dining hours are as rigid in the East as in the West.

Students tumble into their clothes for morning exercises done outside to the accompaniment of more music.

Westerners must adjust their image of a university (even of a factory or farm) when they think about China.

A campus is not merely a collection of classrooms, laboratories, and student residences, nor even an area including some faculty homes. It's a miniature city , usually a walled city. Its dormitories include residence halls for unmarried faculty - and some young marrieds as well, including those with nine-year-old children. These buildings are identical with the students', but rooms have fewer residents.

In addition, faculty and staff housing is provided, from one- and two-family cottages up to 40-unit apartment blocks. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the mixing of service personnel, faculty, and administrators was the rule. Today there is more separation, but most of the employees are housed on campus.

A university usually includes a farm and often some factories, which were set up in the 1950s during the so-called Great Leap Forward when practical application of academics was stressed. Thus chemical plants exist along with the more conventional woodworking shops that build and repair furniture.

There are government stores for meat, poultry, and vegetables, sweet shops, and a ''department store'' (less a Macy's than a general dry goods emporium). Tailors, shoe repairmen, a bicycle repair shop, branches of the Bank of China and of the post office, eating places, and a photographer's are also part of the community. One ''goes to town'' rarely, solely for more variety. A very few may go to attend a church or other religious service.

After his morning exercises a student will return to his room, washing up in the bathroom. Each floor will have a toilet room, bathroom, and laundry room, but since the Cultural Revolution at least some major universities no longer have hot tap water. Before, it was provided for 40 minutes, twice a day, at 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening.

Now students carry hot bathing or laundry water in buckets from a hot water room open at similar hours, 7 to 8 in the morning, 5:30 to 6:30 at night. A large campus may be divided into districts, so that such facilities are only a few minutes away from a residence hall.

In winter, students who want a hot shower go to the bathhouse from 3 to 9 p.m., men on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, women on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

About 10 shower heads line two long walls and both sides of a central partition. Four or five people will be using each shower during the busiest hours (that could be 200 people at one time - price, 3 cents each). Private stalls are available for about 12 cents. The bathhouse is closed in the summer. Cold showers, warmed by a hot environment, suffice.

Although arrangements vary from place to place, hot water is generally free and boiled water is 1 coupon per student (1 coupon for about half a cent for faculty). Each student receives 40 coupons a month, free. If that isn't enough, as some say, 40 more coupons may be bought for 20 fen (about 12 cents US). Faculty doing their own cooking boil their own water.

Chinese thermos bottles keep contents remarkably hot for well over 24 hours. If one were looking for a mundane symbol for China, the ubiquitous thermos might be it.

''Dining halls'' is a misnomer for a student eatery. A kitchen, a serving line, and two or three tables, which some describe more as work areas than eating tables, may be all that's available. Students bring their own enamel bowls - about a quart size - to the canteen at each meal, along with spoons or chopsticks.

The basic food item is rice or steamed bread, preferred in South and North, respectively. When obliged to eat the other, students often grumble. Some years ago every student received the same grain allotment, too much for some, too little for others. Now, some schools permit the use of coupons according to need.

For breakfast, a rice gruel or porridge is common, along with long, deep-fried bread sticks or crullers. One young teacher prefers the local restaurant, where two 5-fen crullers and a ''bowl'' of sweet rice wine cost him 19 fen (12 cents).

Both meal tickets and grain ration coupons may be called for in a dining hall , or payment might be made in cash. The prices are modest. A dish of Chinese cabbage is 5 fen (3 cents), egg drop soup 10 fen (6 cents), vegetables with pork , the most plentiful meat, or fish, 30 fen (19 cents), and up. Similar dishes are served noon and night.

Students are usually seen hurrying back to their rooms, steaming food bowls in hand, or walking along eating as they go. As with many American students, eating is treated as a necessity, not a relaxed, pleasurable social affair.University schedules are such that between rising, exercising, washing, and breakfast, students and faculty have time to work on their lessons or to do the laundry. All living areas are bedecked with hand-washed long johns (shirts and blouses in scarlet, bright blue, green, or black and ''Mao'' coats and trousers in blue, black, gray, or olive). On beautiful days, bedding is strung out to air between every tree and pole. Classes begin at 8 and end at 12 (7:30 and 11:30 in spring and fall). In the afternoons they run from 2 to 4. Not everyone is in class all those hours, however. Between lunch and 2, everyone ''rests,'' which usually means ''sleeps.'' Between 4 and 5 p.m. is sports time - badminton (with and without a net), Frisbies, volleyball, and basketball are the most common activities. Class, faculty, and student games are arranged regularly. All play is outside on open-air courts, weather permitting. An early meal and study round out the students' day. TV is not a part of a student's social life. An additional outside activity, weather permitting or not, is the twice weekly Wednesday and Saturday night movies. Shown in the open air, in rain , sleet, or snow, they draw people the way sugar draws ants. They stream in from all directions, men, women, and children, each carrying his own small chair or stool. Chinese, Indian, American, and other films are shown. Within two weeks there were a classic Chinese opera and ''Ship of the Damned'' (with no subtitles or Chinese narration). Contemporary morality lessons are included, although older ones elicit considerable laughter. It should be noted that regular Western-style movie houses abound. This elastic outdoor variety is a ''work unit'' activity. A Chinese student never lacks company. In most universities a dormitory room houses a minimum of four and not infrequently six. This is a product of expanded education willingly endured because a university education remains a rare privilege. Buildings are coed by floors, a matter of routine and practicality, not a relaxation of morality or an aspect of modernization. Concrete and plaster rectangles situated off a central corridor accommodate four or six bunk beds along the long walls and two or three two-sided desks in the center, each with a small, square wooden stool. One large bookcase completes the furnishings. The most recent buildings have built-in cupboards and, at some schools, hot water in the bathrooms, but neither convenience is widespread. The Chinese favor fluorescent lights, and overhead fixtures are the norm. Wiring, however, is minimal at best. Older rooms have no outlets. If one is required, for language cassettes, for instance, an electrician runs a wire off the light fixture to single outlets attached to small blocks laid on a desk or fastened to a wooden doorframe. Batteries are used more commonly to power radios, cassette players, and even some razors. When students enter a university, they will probably bring all their belongings with them: the aforementioned two or so eating bowls, spoons, chopsticks, and thermoses; a covered cup, a wash basin for sponge baths or laundry, books, clothes, pillow, a sheet, and bedding.Clothes will be stored in wooden chests, akin to the traditional Chinese ones. These trunklike boxes will hold a padded winter coat and jacket, long woolen underwear , lighter-weight underclothing, washable jackets to keep the padded jackets spotless, blouses or shirts, lightweight summer wear, winter and rain boots, shoes, socks - everything. Locked, the chests provide storage space for valuables like radios, etc.The basis of a Chinese bed is a sturdy wooden frame with rattan webbing. Over this, in warm weather, is laid a straw mat, but in winter a quilted cotton pad (with or without red or black striped ticking) adds warmth beneath the body. A white or print muslin sheet covers the pad while the person snuggles under the ever-present quilt. One big disadvantage: nothing is tucked in and feet can stray outside into the cold. ''Quilt'' is another misnomer. The same cotton pad used beneath the body (in fact those are usually old, worn ones, put to a new use) is covered with a fitted contour sheet whose exposed top side is made pretty by sewing on a colorful piece of bright green, blue, pink, or fuchsia brocade. These precut squares are sold for this purpose in all department stores. The old porcelain pillows are now museum items. Today's pillows, which students bring with their quilts and pads, are about one foot by a foot and a half and tightly packed with husks, foam, or feathers. Although they merit cases, a thin hand towel covers the casing. It is the towel, not the case, which is washed regularly.Students thus take quite a collection of items when they leave for the university - a chest, a suitcase or two, and a rolled bundle of bedding and books. If they live nearby, a small truck from a parents' work unit might carry the bundles to campus, or take them to the railway station for shipment on the student's ticket. University buses meet first-year students. Bundles are picked up at the baggage collection center and taken to the residence halls. At year's end, students pack up and store their possessions by class (meaning year and major). Two students are elected to bundle-sit for the summer, watching over the room and its contents. This is considered a nice job - so much time to read and study!

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