HOME LIFE AND POSSESSIONS IN CHINA

POSSESSIONS IN CHINA

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Sitting on the kang making lace in the 1890s
In poor areas, many homes have only a few pieces of furniture, and no running water. Water is gathered from a community well, where basins are often set up for women to do their laundry. Places that have electricity often only have it a few hours a day. Telephone service if there is any may be provided by a single phone for the entire village.

Some families make big sacrifices for the possession they have. One low-income woman told the Washington Post, "Superficially you can say people are better off because of the material things they didn't used to have. But...people are very much in debt. Some families, yes, have a TV, but they don't have food to eat for the next day."

Some Chinese live in houses without plumbing but have an air conditioner, VCR and microwave oven. Haier sells a washing machine that also kneads noodle dough. This has been a big selling point for many Chinese.

Most apartments are delivered bare, meaning buyers have to outfit them with basics such as bathroom fixtures. About 70 percent of the new residential projects in China are sold with nothing on the floors or walls. Buyers are required to buy wallpaper, tiles, fittings, paint and flooring to make their concrete boxes livable.

Homes and apartments in affluent urban or suburban areas are often furnished like homes and apartments in the West. The home decorating market increased from $50 billion in 1998 to $200 billion in 2009.

Good Websites and Sources: Book: Houses of China by Bonne Shemie ; Yin Yu Tang pem.org ; House Architecure washington.edu ; House Interiors washington.edu; Cave Dwellings in Shanxi chinavista.com ; Old House in Wuxi China Vista : Links in this Website: EVERYDAY LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HOMES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;

Rooms, Central Heating and Kangs in China

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Kang
Chinese homes typically have one large space rather than separate rooms. Parents often share rooms with their children and some people spend hours in the bathroom because it is the only place where they can get some privacy. Homes generally don’t have yards. People often don't even know what they are and few people have ever seen one.

Older houses often times don't have a kitchen and bathroom. People wash in basin and relieve themselves in chamber pots. The cooking is done on iron stoves in the living room, in separate shack outside the main house, or a “wall kitchen,” small cubicle with a window, stove-top burners and a powerful fan to soak up odors. Even Western-style suburban homes often have an outside shack or “wall kitchen.” One Chinese developer told the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese people are used to stir-frying, and the smell of oil and smoke is heavy. It can get into the furniture.”

Many Chinese houses are quite cold in the winters. It is not unusual for people to wear thermal underwear and heavy coats inside their houses throughout the winter. Many people in northern China sleep on or around a kang, a traditional brick bed or concrete platform, built over a stove, oven or fireplace which is heated with coal, wood or animal dung and provides warmth in the winter. Kangs are usually covered with cotton mattresses and colorfully embroidered quilts. They serve as a couch, bed and work area. Houses south of the Yangtze generally don’t have kangs or central heating. Although not as severe as the north the winters there can be cold and damp.

In Beijing many apartments built in the Mao era have central heating but it isn’t turned on until November 15 even though temperatures often drop into the 30s F before that time. People stay warm before teh heat is turned on by wearing layers of clothes inside their homes and snuggling with each other in bed at night. A German resident in one of these apartments told the Los Angeles Times, “Every day I rush into the shower, have a hot cup of coffee and get out of my apartment as fast as I can.” He said he often stays late at work because there is heating there. In northern China the heat is often turned on earlier. In Beijing the heat last until March 15. But even when it on it often produces a minimal amount of warmth and shuts off at midnight.

Refrigerators, Cell Phones and Televisions in China

For every 100 households in the countryside there are 89 color televisions, 22 refrigerators and 62 cell phones. For 100 every household in the cities there are 137 color televisions, 92 refrigerators and 153 cell phones.

Though many people have televisions, VCRs, satellite dishes or cable hook-ups and DVD players they often don't have refrigerators, washing machines or driers.

Refrigerators are often considered a luxury. With refrigerators people don't have to buy food everyday. But they are not practical because power supplies are often unreliable and when power is reliable it is very expensive.

See Television and Radio

Increased Materialism in China

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Chinese bride on cell phone
China is the world's leading consumer of televisions, cell phones and refrigerators. Chinese consumers now buy more of these than Americans. A survey in 12 major cities in 1999, found out 97 percent of people had televisions, 88 percent had refrigerators and washing machines.

But it wasn’t always that way. In 1978, there were 1 million television sets in China. In 1996, there 232 million. The "three bigs”---the most coveted three appliances---for the older generation in China were a bicycle, a radio and a gas stove. During the Cultural Revolution it was a bicycle, a sewing machine and a wristwatch. Later televisions and refrigerators were "two most coveted appliances in China" and success was often indicated by possession of one or both of these items. Cloth television covers and automatic water heaters, are also prized possessions in China.

The "new three" are a television, refrigerator and washing machine. The "newer three" are a cell phone, house and car. Also sought after are boom boxes, DVD players, motorcycles, and designer clothes. Ikea has become a very popular in Beijing. Success is defined by owning a Cadillac or BMW and running up a large tab at a hotel restaurants or karaoke bar.

In a famous short story by Wang Meng, a well-known author and cultural minister, an old man with a TV and a refrigerator believed "his life was just about perfect...Yes his son was far from satisfied with things as they were. He wanted video equipment, a musical door-chime, a motorcycle and a rubber dinghy."

Some don’t like the increased materialism. When asked about the changes brought about the economic reforms a woman told Theroux, "I hate the changes. Now all they want are trinkets and toys---color TVs, cameras, watches, tape recorders, refrigerators, motorcycles. They're greedy, they've started to be very crooked, they don't trust each other, they lie. Remember how you used to hear how they'd give you back your used razor blades? Oh, we don't need these. We have razor blades of our own.' So honest!, So straight! So Chinese!"

In recent years it has become popular among Chinese to pay inflated prices for antiques from the U.S. and Europe. Janice Turner wrote in The Times; Not Chippendale chairs or Louis XV gilded rocco mairros but unloved Cash in the Attic junk: heavy bookcases, leather wing-backed chairsm your granny’s ugly mahogany sideboard,

Possessions of Peasants in China

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Home ancestor altar
In poor village homes there isn't much furniture except for a low table, a few stools to sit on, a large drum of water and a grinding mill for grain. People sleep or sit on the hard floor or on mats, basic beds or wooden platforms. Food is cooked over an open fire pit or primitive stove. The number of mats, rugs or cushions a family possesses may be an expression of wealth.

Peasants in southern China have traditionally slept on wooden or bamboo beds while those in the north slept on kangs (See Homes in China). Many elderly people prefer to sleep on the floor on top of blanket rather in a bed.

The typical possessions of a poor rural family include a television, a desk, two tables, a wooden cupboard, a battery-powered clock, a stove, a few wooden stools. The floor is cement. Hanging on wall is a family photograph and a portrait of Mao as a young man.

A family in the Yunnan province said its most prized possessions are their television, bicycles and gold necklaces (received by the daughter in law as wedding gifts). In the future, the family hopes to have enough money to afford a larger TV, VCR, refrigerator, more tools and drugs to fight diseases that affect their fish breeding business. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]

The family doesn't have a telephone or car. But it does have 2 radios, 2 portable cassette players, a push cart, 2 sewing machines, end table, guitar, 2 tricycles, 2 rice cookers, desk, fan, insecticide sprayer, wardrobe, 5 bicycles, jars for preserving vegetables, scrolls, kettle, rice basket, 2 paintings, wicker seat, 1 bed (for 1st son's family), 4 wash basins, chairs, clothes rack, dolls, sofa, a wok, and dinnerware. The family also has three pigs, three fish ponds, one hundred mandarin orange trees and a vegetable patch.

Poor families often keep animals such as goats, donkeys, pigs and chickens. Sometimes these animals share living spaces with people. These animals attract flies and disease-causing germs and are often a health risk to the occupants of the house.

Village Food Preparation and Cooking in China

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Rural kitchen in Jiangsu
Cooking in villages is often done outdoors in a courtyard, over a fire, on a piece of sheet metal, supported by clay supports. Food is usually prepared in aluminum pots and passed around. Men help themselves first and then boys take their turn. Women and girls get what remains, but there is usually plenty to go around.

Villagers grow their own rice, cabbage, potatoes and vegetables. Grain is either grown or purchased at the market, crushed in basin-size mortars with baseball bat-size pestles. What little money a family earns from selling surplus food is spent on items like food, tea, sugar, tools and kitchen utensils. Things like chocolate and coffee are luxuries beyond the reach of most people.

Women generally do all the cooking. Items found in the kitchen include aluminum cooking pots, water storage vessels, and small bowls for salt and snacks. There are ladles and large bowls for eating and serving food and saucepans, baking pans and frying pans.

Fires, Dung and Trees in Poor Villages in China

For many people coal, dung, firewood or charcoal are the main sources of energy. The poorest people use dung and agriculture waste for fires. People slightly better off use wood or charcoal and those better off still have access to propane and kerosene. In China, coal briquettes are widely used. Those lucky enough to have electricity usually only receive it for a couple of hours in the evening or endure frequent brown-outs and power outages Gasoline is sometimes in such short supply and so expensive that is sold in small bottles.

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Cooking with coal briquettes
In most homes cooking is done on a metal plate placed over a wood or dung fire. Cooking is often done outside because there is a danger of fire. Kerosene, propane, oil and butter lamps are used to light a house. Candles are regarded by many as prohibitively expensive.

People who rely on cow dung for energy, collect it in the morning from their corrals or fields. Some of the dung is mixed with straw and made into a past that is used to plaster house walls. Most of the rest is flattened and broken into pieces and used as fuel. Collecting and processing dung occupies much of the time of the children and women.

Trees cut down in deforested areas are often used for fuel or charcoal. Fuel wood consumption in the developing world increased 35 percent between 1975 and 1986.

Many people suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling smoke from cooking and heating fires in huts with virtually no ventilation. Health experts estimate that 4 million children die worldwide from smoke-related respiratory. The illnesses are caused by inhaling carbon monoxide and particles of soot and ash---made with dung, agricultural waste and/or wood--- everyday for years. Children's lungs are more sensitive than the lungs of adults. Coal and charcoal also cause a lot of air pollution.

Toilets in China

China claims to be the home of the first flush toilet. An ancient latrine was discovered on a Western Han Dynasty (200 B.C. to A.D. 24) tomb. The Chinese invented toilet paper in the 14th century. See Firsts, History

The World Health Organization estimates that tens of millions of Chinese have no access to toilets and defecate in the open. A 2010 report estimated that 45 percent of Chinese lacked access to improved sanitation facilities that protect users from contact with excrement, contributing to the risk of disease. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, February 29, 2012]

According to a United Nations report, half the world's people don't have access to a toilet or a clean latrine. People often relieve themselves in the bushes or in a field. Only 30 percent of the world uses toilet paper. Alternatives include hands, water, sand, small rocks, mud, leaves, rope and seaweed.

But China’s sanitation has improved drastically in the past 20 years and continues to get better. Riding a historic property boom, Chinese are now buying nearly 19 million toilets a year, about twice the number sold in the United States, according to industry estimates. Last November, China hosted the World Toilet Organization’s 11th World Toilet Summit and Expo on Hainan Island. The Chinese authorities there said that the island, a tourist spot, was in the midst of a “toilet revolution.” [Source: LaFraniere, Op Cit]

A typical rural bathroom is a shed-like outhouse in back of the house with cinder blocks walls and a metal door and roof. The toilet more often than not it is a latrine or a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit. If there is a flushing system it is more often than not a ladle and a bucket of water. Most guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets.

Substandard plumbing and overloaded city sewers are problems in many places. Blockages are common, plumbing work can be shoddy, and pipes often are placed too close to floorboards. A well-known joke in China goes like this: If you need a bathroom, just follow your nose. Places with sewers often have no waste-water treatment facilities and sewage is dumped directly into water supplies from which people draw their water. Places with sewers often have no waste-water treatment facilities and sewage is dumped directly into water supplies from which people draw their water.

Many Asians consider squat-style Asian toilets to be more hygienic than Western toilets because no part of the body touches them. Studies have shown that people who use Asian-style squat toilets are less likely to get hemorrhoids than people who use Western-style toilets. David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ‘squat toilet habits are hard to break in China, particularly among the older generation. Women's public restrooms commonly include signs asking visitors not to stand on the seats. The telltale sign it's too late? A set of footprints.”

Public Toilets in China

right Millions of people in China don't have a toilet in their own home. Instead they use chamber pots which are taken to collection centers. Most public toilets have squat-style Asian toilets. Many rural Chinese are unfamiliar with Western toilets. It is not unusual to see footprints on the seat of a Western toilet from where somebody has stood and squatted.

As a rule public rest rooms don't have toilet paper (for this reason always carry tissue with you). Toilet paper, or often newspapers, are supposed to be placed in a the wastebasket and not flushed so the plumbing system does get clogged. Many rest rooms are coed, with urinals in the front for men and separate toilets stalls behind closed doors for men and women.

Some public toilets are watched over by married couples, with the husband cleaning the men’s room and the wife cleaning the women’s room. Some have young children that also spend much of their time in the public toilet.

Dirty Public Toilets in China

The public toilets in China are regarded as among the world's worst. They are often dirty, smelly and disgusting and many non-Chinese find them "unusable." Some are out in open and people have to squat in full view of everyone; others have pigs eating the shit underneath them. Chinese writers complained about dirty toilets as far back as the 11th century B.C. and a popular saying these days is "finding a toilet is as hard as going to heaven."

left Beijing especially is infamous for its disgusting public toilets. About a fifth of the complaints received the Beijing Consumer's Association are related to Beijing's public toilets. The ones in the hutongs have traditionally been used by entire neighborhoods and communities and stink to high heaven. eijing have offered large sums of money for better public toilet designs. Some hotels have signs in bathrooms that read: "Guest may not perform urination in sink basin."

Shanghai, a city with 13 million people, has only 1,104 public toilets and Beijing, with 10 million people, has 6,800. In 1993, 70 percent of the population of Beijing used public toilets, today about 20 percent use them. Most of the waste from urban toilets ends up in tanks that are emptied by vans or men with wheelbarrows and ultimately sent to the countryside to be used as night soil (See Agriculture).

After the Communist closed down tea houses and cafes as being decadent, public toilets often served as meeting places in Beijing. It became common for people to socialize seated on toilets with no doors or partitions. The practice went along with Communist teachings for people to eschew secrets and share everything (See Society, Privacy). At some public toilets, Chinese pretend to squat and refuse to move unless they are given money.

Improving Toilets in China

After China lost its bid to host the Olympics in 2000, the country went through a phase of soul searching to determine how to improve China and improving toilets was at the top of the list. Part of Beijing’s effort to win the 2008 Olympics included renovating 452 public toilets in 305 tourist sites and ranking them from zero to four stars. When the program was launched the China Daily ran the headline: “Capital Flushes Out Low Standard Loos.”

The toilets were ranked on the basis of 58 qualifications. Those that received four stars were clean and well lit as you might expect but also boasted things like granite floors, cheerful music and automatic flushing toilets. The one outside the Peking Man complex was given high marks. It featured blow dryers that users could use to blow the dust off their skin after visiting the site. The one outside a popular section of the Great Wall was designed by a famous Taiwanese architect. One in Hangzhou featured bamboo walls and wooden seats and was dubbed “Oneness of Being.”

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Five star public toilet

Some advanced toilets have climate control and television sets and have been designed to look like space ships. Some new ones have infra-red-activated flushing toilets and signs in Chinese, English and braille that list rules like “Each user is entitled to one free piece of common toilet paper (length centimeters, width 10 centimeters).

As of 2005, the Beijing government had spent $29 million fixing up 14,500 toilets. Many hutong residents used to using communal toilet thought the whole thing was a big waste of money. Other have established clubs associated with them. Beijing wasn’t the only city bent on improving it toilets. The city of Chongqing experimented with outdoor toilets for males that have walls equipped with a waist-level screens that hide the vital parts of user.

In 2004, Beijing hosted the World Toilet Summit. It attracted 150 academics, sanitation experts, toilet designers and environmentalists from 19 countries, including Finland, Germany, Japan, Nepal and the United States. It also used the event as an opportunity to showcase its new toilets.

Beijing Imposes Two-fly Rule on Public Toilets

In May 2012, Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “China's draconian 'one-child' policy is well known. But now a new code has come into effect: a two-fly rule now governs public toilets across Beijing. The edict was issued to cleaners across the capital. The Working Standard of Beijing Major Industries' Public Toilet Management is designed to bring much-needed improvements to public hygiene and cleanliness in the city's 12,000 public lavatories. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, May 24, 2012]

“Central to the campaign is ensuring that the number of flies in each facility is never allowed to exceed two. The rules offer no suggestions on how to achieve the exacting standard or how to measure the fly population. The two-fly rule does not specify whether the quota refers to living or dead specimens, or whether to count a fly that, after entering, shows no sign of wishing to prolong the visit. One Beijing toilet cleaner, who gave her name as Wang, said that the rules were vague on what to do if the fly count was precisely two: "Are we obliged to destroy the surviving two, or leave them be?"

Despite the demands of the rule, officials at the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment said that they were designed to "lead public toilets in a better direction" and indicated that enforcement would not be as rigorous as many toilet cleaners might fear. "We will not actually count fly numbers," said Xie Guomin, an official at the municipal commission. "The regulation is specific and quantified, but the inspection methodology will be flexible.” [Ibid]

“Toilet-cleaning professionals in several facilities pointed out that the rule had not been accompanied by budgetary changes that would allow them to purchase, for example, a fly swat. Cleaners at toilets in Ritan Park said that they tended to operate a three-fly rule. Only one fly was visible during a brief interview. The new rules demand that the smell of each public toilet should be rated on a six-tier scale, from odourless to unbearable. Seats - if the lavatories are not the more common squat variety - should have no dust, surface water, litter, or, in the winter, ice

Chinese Snapping Up High-Tech Toilets

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Like Goldilocks searching for the perfect perch, Dong Yu tested one seat after another in the glitzy showroom. Some were too pricey, others too fussy. Then he found one that was just right. "You've got to try this," he shouted to his wife, to the delight of a fawning saleswoman. "This one's really comfortable." The seat in question was a $400 toilet made by Japan-based Toto Ltd. Dong and his wife had just bought a 2,200-square-foot apartment in a tony section of China's capital and were prepared to splurge on a pair of eye-catching commodes. This model, with its slim tank and ultra-quiet flush, was exactly what the couple were looking for.[Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times October 21, 2010]

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“China's housing boom has unleashed a bull market in fancy plumbing, a surge that underscores the desire of millions of Chinese to enjoy a better standard of living,” Pierson wrote. “No longer content with low-tech latrines, upwardly mobile Chinese are snapping up cutting-edge toilets loaded with high-efficiency flushing systems, heated seats and built-in bidets. "Today, Chinese people like to focus on the kitchen and the bathroom in their new apartments," Dong, 37, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a big difference from when I was a kid. We had to share public bathrooms, which only had squat toilets." [Ibid]

“Although many are satisfied with Western-style toilets that often cost no more than $20 here, pricier name brands are gaining traction. Models costing anywhere from $150 to $6,000 now account for about 5 per cent of the toilets sold in China each year, according to Toto officials. The Japanese company has been riding robust growth here, peddling commodes with sleek designs and features such as oscillating bidets, air fresheners and blow dryers.” [Ibid]

"As far as toilets go, we think this is top of the line," Banse Katsuya, project sales manager for Toto China, told the Los Angeles Times, standing proudly over a $5,900 Neorest series bowl in the company's flagship store in Beijing. Outfitted with buttons labeled "rear cleansing" and "front cleansing" (and it's not referring to the bowl), the Space Age device features a heated seat and a water-saving, but powerful, hands-free sensor flush. The technology is nothing new in Japan, where units with built-in bidets, known as washlets, are commonplace even in public restrooms. But in China, the nouveaux riches have only recently begun to accept bells and whistles with their thrones. [Ibid]

Zhang Li, a 36-year-old real estate agent who grew up in one of Beijing's old courtyard neighborhoods where the odor of the public bathrooms was never far away, the told the Los Angeles Times has no regrets about stocking her luxury apartment with the latest and fanciest toilets. "I think we've earned the right to have clean, nice bathrooms," she said.

Foreign Companies Seek Their Share of China’s High-Tech Toilet Market

The surge for high-tech toilets has been a bonanza for plumbing manufacturers, which are vying for a piece of the world's largest loo market. Nearly 19 million toilets are sold in China annually, about double the number sold in the U.S., said Victor Post, vice president of BRG Consult, a global building products consultancy. "China is the most competitive market in the world," said Larry Yuen, president of Kohler Asia, which has 11 factories in China. "There are brands from Japan, Europe and America all fighting for market share." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times October 21, 2010]

"Our goal is to make these kinds of functionalities basic for everyone," Takahiro Yanagihara, director of Toto China told the Los Angeles Times. Toto operates nine factories in the country and whose sales have risen 10 per cent every year for the past decade. "We believe demand will continue to grow as urbanization continues to grow. People have more money to spend, and they want to be comfortable." [Ibid]

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Toto has increased its Chinese marketing budget in recent years, Yanagihara said. It appears to be working. He said the company's washlet sales in China have tripled since 2004. In one television spot broadcast here, an actress touts the product by saying, "It's just like a spa." Then, using computer-generated animation that's short on subtlety, the commercial demonstrates how the bidet function works. [Ibid]

American Standard, whose operations in Asia are owned by a Japanese conglomerate, is also trying to educate Chinese consumers. In a multistory bathroom supply store in Beijing, company saleswoman Zhang Min showed off a $3,800 Eurozen model, which had pride of place on a glass pedestal. Her frank pitch focused on human plumbing. "We're targeting the younger generation. They're more aware of hygiene," Zhang said. "Though I keep telling older people that the bidet helps with constipation." [Ibid]

Across town, rival Kohler Co. of Wisconsin displays its elegantly designed bowls in a recently renovated showroom. One had a decorative gold band across its tank, another didn't have a tank at all. Opening the lid required just a nudge with a fingertip; a mechanism did the rest. Price tag: $5,000. Yuen, theAsia president of the company said the manufacturer is benefiting from younger Chinese unafraid to show off their wealth. He said consumers here have a special affinity for the bathroom. "It's the only place in your home you can have privacy," he said. "A lot of people still live with their grandparents and parents." [Ibid]

To better suit the Chinese market, some Kohler toilets are made a few inches shorter than in the U.S. And in a nation where nearly 1 in 4 residents smoke, Kohler salespeople in China often brag that their flushing system is powerful enough to suck down all the remnants of an emptied ashtray. "We've done this demonstration over and over," said Eric Sun, a company official. biggest challenge is installation," Yuen said. "It's why we're promoting and working with certified Kohler plumbers. There's just a lot of ignorance and second-rate piping out there."

Image Sources: 1) Kang, altar, kitchen, University of Washington; 2) Coal. Westport ; 3) Cell phone, Textually Speaking blog ; 4) Pubic toilet, Poco Pico blog; 5) Toilets, Louis Perrochon http://www.perrochon.com/photo/china/ ; Toto

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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