Self-built housing in China

Aside from its own program of apartment building, the People's Republic of China has encouraged individuals to build their own houses. Some 14,000 families in Fukien Province alone have recently done just that with the help of funds from family members overseas.

Private home ownership is protected by the constitution. The government has even begun selling units to individuals, according to a recent story in the China Daily.

Styles vary widely in China, as could be expected, given the country's size, the diversity of its climate, and the varying cultures of the outlying regions.

The small one-floor, square brick or stucco cottages of central China and the two-story wooden or stucco structures with shops beneath are widespread; only the flavoring varies.

Northern Chinese city homes are built around courtyards, as are many rural compounds east and west.

Peking's old courtyard housing was subdivided in the 1950s with nearly a family per room. The courtyards were filled with lean-to kitchens. Where Western influences were found, from the Italianate of Chang to Shanghai's walled mansions in Franco-Germanic Shakespearean or Victorian styles, wide, tree-lined streets predominate.

The twisting lanes of Canton lack the color but are reminiscent of the Mediterranean, whose climate is evident there and whose commercial contacts are historic.

In the northwest, around Sian, the heartland of ancient China, houses have high northern walls and only half a roof, sloping southward. A guide may volunteer that this stems from former poverty, the exploited people too poor to build the other half. The climate might have had a hand in this matter.

Strong, cold, and dust-laden winds blow from the north, dictating a southern orientation. This tradition that a house face south spread from China throughout East Asia.

Around almost all these homes are walls. From the Great Wall to the town wall to the compound wall, the Chinese are enclosed.

City walls, however, are generally gone, torn down during the Cultural Revolution as one of the ''olds'' that had to go. On the periphery of the country, in areas occupied by minorities (Mongols, Turks, Tibetans, or Thais, for example), regional styles exist, including matriarchal communal halls and the nomads' round, felt yurts.

Mundane apartment blocks are penetrating these areas, too.

In the country some farm units have built apartment houses, while others laid out entire new villages replete with clinic, schools, the recreational center, and shops to replace twisted, muddy streets and crumbling adobe shelters. In most cases, however, the initiative and action to improve a home stemmed from individual frugality and determination.

Subdivisions within a commune will help its members with interest-free loans. Usually small, 1,000 yen ($670) or so, they are repaid within a year or two.

New construction is the traditional red brick and tiled roof in use in China for more than 2,000 years but, in former times, only by ''rich peasants'' and landlords. Kilns have proliferated, bricks being made from earth dug from canals or accumulated when hills were leveled.

The communes in Huixian County, Henan Province, have reportedly earned 5 million yen from their cement and brick facilities. All but some 5,000 of the 45 ,000 building material plants in China are in rural districts, so adobe or mud is fast disappearing.

Thatch, for roofing, is regional, but it is still common in Sichuan, for example.

One farm family near Peking is cited as enlarging its space to four rooms in 1963, and to seven in 1978, as finances and the social climate permitted.

Material improvements were not ventured during the Cultural Revolution. A friend's peasant parents have enlarged their home from 5 to 8 to 16 rooms to house their family of 12 children. The space would seem to have been needed! The news value, for China, is that they had the resources with which to expand their quarters.

A Henanese family receiving accumulated back pay after the husband was rehabilitated, following his persecution by the ''gang of four,'' put the cash into a new three-room home, built around an earlier, smaller structure which was subsequently demolished.

Many young people report similar situations in their families resulting from such enforced savings. Not often do families have such large resources in hand.

Friends frequently participate in these house raisings. They are ''plied with tea and fed good meals,'' a young man reported in recounting his own memories. Commune members might also receive teamwork points, which are credits toward a share of the proceeds from their common productive activities (harvests, kiln profits, etc.).

On one commune in Chejiang Province, members received 10 work points a day for the 22 days it took to finish a unit. The normal home there - a two-story row house - had three rooms totaling 67 square meters (725 square feet) and costing 600 yen (about $400) for materials. The expenses were borne by the commune. The farmers even received payment for the lumber and bricks recycled from their old houses. They do have to pay rent for the new quarters - all of some 50 cents a month.

Rents in China are not usually so low, but neither are they high.

It would be rare indeed for anyone to pay more than 6 yen (about $3.30) for an apartment. The average is more like 3 yen. Young workers living in dormitories pay about that for their room and utilities. Householders must add electricity and coal or propane costs.

A tank of the latter might run to 5 yen for a family of five every six weeks.

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