Between cabbage-buying trips, Chinese enjoy film evoking imperial era

As chill winds whistle across Tian An Men Square, the Chinese cabbage season is in full swing throughout the nation's capital. On balconies and roofs, citizens lay out their long-leafed cabbages to dry before putting them in winter storage under burlap or newspapers.

The cabbages must be kept cool but not allowed to freeze. Few families have refrigerators, and Chinese cabbage is all the green most of them can afford during the long winter.

This year, one family can buy 20 to 30 catties (one catty is 1.1 pounds) of first-class cabbage in government stores, plus any amount of second- or third-quality cabbage. Each family will want up to 100 catties to see it through till spring.

Peking plans the sale of autumn cabbages like a military operation. Wang Xian, a member of the city's party secretariat, is in charge of the ''autumn vegetable headquarters.''

He directs the harvesting, storage, transportation, and sale of this year's crop. It is a race against time, for once the cabbage freezes, it will spoil. Trucks stand in the fields as the peasants harvest their crops, and then rush into town, often spilling cabbages as they go.

In a generally lean theater and film season, a current movie hit is ''Zhiyin, '' translated as ''Intimate Friends.'' It is the story of Cai (pronounced tsai) E (pronounced er) and his beautiful courtesan - later his wife - Xiao Fengxian.

Cai E (1882-1916), a young, popular general of the early republican period, opposes the plans of the warlord Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) to proclaim himself emperor.

In order not to be suspected by Yuan (who was President and nearly all-powerful), Cai pretends to lead a life of debauchery with Xiao and her friends. Eventually he escapes to Yunnan to raise the standard of revolt, but becomes ill and dies. Feng, jailed when Cai flees, is freed after Yuan Shikai's death. The plot is more or less true to history.

But what has caught the fancy of today's audiences is the full-color recreation of a vanished life style - generals on white horses, courtesans in slinky brocade dresses, the clatter of mah-jongg tiles, dances in the old legation quarter.

The movie is dominated by Ying Ruocheng, the actor who plays Yuan Shikai. With shaved head and slightly corpulent figure, he struts around the splendid baroque summer palace where once the Empress Dowager squandered China's wealth. But he dies a broken man, hated by his countrymen and rejected by the Europeans whose favor he curried.

Does the film project a not-so-subtle message to President Chiang Chingkuo, Chiang Kai-shek's son, on Taiwan? On the mainland and on Taiwan, Cai E is a hero , Yuan a traitor. Follow Cai's path, not Yuan's - that seems to be the moral.

Twelve hundred miles south of freezing Peking, billboards in balmy Canton advertise the same film, ''Zhiyin.'' But there are no trucks racing around loaded with Chinese cabbage. Canton is at the same latitude as Havana, and the fields outside the city are green with spinach and sugar cane.

Like citizens almost everywhere, the Cantonese (2 million in the city, 5 million including suburbs) complain about rising prices, especially for nonstaple foods - pork, chicken, vegetables. (Staple foods are sold at subsidized prices.)

Prices are a problem everywhere in China, but Canton has a special problem, says Xu Shi, deputy editor of the popular Yangcheng Evening News.

''Being so close to Hong Kong and Macao, we have many citizens with relatives in these cities, or abroad,'' he said. ''These people send remittances back home , so that there is more money around here than there are goods to buy. Naturally , prices soar.''

But to a visitor from the north, sought-after items like tape recorders and TVs seem much more available here. A peasant near Peking complained that even with over 1,000 yuan ($666) saved, he could not buy a TV - it simply was not available.

But in Haomei village in the southern outskirts of Canton, Mrs. Chen's two-story brick house has a color TV, a tape recorder, two sewing machines, four bicycles, and two fans.

''Our next purchase will be a refrigerator,'' said Mrs. Chen, who was treading unhusked rice with bare feet on her commune's threshing floor when we arrived.

She and her husband are unusually well off because their five children all work and none is yet married. The family's annual income comes to 5,400 yuan or about $3,600.

''I had a hard time when my children were small,'' Mrs. Chen says, ''but during the last three years our life has become quite comfortable.'' Mrs. Chen is preparing for the wedding next spring of her oldest child, a daughter of 26.

''It takes about a thousand yuan to get a daughter married these days,'' she confides.

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