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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. The Chinese government has made a great effort to reduce the number of these places and many places that previously did not have running water now have it. Some places that have electricity often only have it a few hours a day. In the old days, telephone service if there was any was often provided by a single phone for the entire village and people without TVs gathered at the homes of people that had them. No most people have televisions and smart phones.

Some families make big sacrifices for the possession they have. One low-income woman told the Washington Post in the 2000s, "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.

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. Many 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.

In the 2000s, for every 100 households in the countryside there were 89 color televisions, 22 refrigerators and 62 cell phones. For 100 every households in the cities there were 137 color televisions, 92 refrigerators and 153 cell phones. Though many people have televisions, Internet access, satellite dishes or cable hook-ups, 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.

In 2013, 74,100 different refrigerator magnets were sold Taobao, China’s biggest internet shopping site. They included Van Gogh paintings, SpongeBob Squarepants and imitation wood plaques thar read “Home, sweet Home.” On Alibaba which caters mainly to businesses and exporters, more than 150,000 fridge magnets are available. This is primarly a sign that shops that sell them around the globe get their products from China. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times of London, December 2013]

Websites and Sources: Yin Yu Tang pem.org ; House Architecture washington.edu ; House Interiors washington.edu; Tulou are Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian Province. They have been declared a World Heritage Site.Hakka Houses flickr.com/photos ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO Books: "Houses of China" by Bonne Shemie ; “Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House” by Nancy Berliner (Tuttle, 2003) is about the reconstruction of a Qing dynasty courtyard house in the United States. Yun Yu Tamg means shade-shelter, abundance and hall.

Interior of a Traditional Chinese House

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Rural kitchen in Jiangsu
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““One of the most important spaces in Chinese homes was reserved for the family's ancestors. Chinese families encompassed the dead as well as the living. As a result, traditionally Chinese families, rich or poor, devoted a space to the ancestors of the family. In ordinary homes this usually consisted of a small shrine set up in the main room of the house. In richer families, an entire hall may have been made into the ancestral shrine. Shrines might take the form of tables, upon which tablets were set. Families would also hang couplets on either side. Often offerings of food and incense are placed on this table to show reverence to the ancestors. The table underneath, as in the image above, would serve as extra surface area to hold offerings. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“As in the west, homes in China have places where people eat and sleep. Chinese sleeping areas often had at least one bed, but the style and the quality of beds could differ greatly. Sometimes you can find curtains around the bed. There are sometimes table that are higher than what people in the West are used to. This is because in many northern homes, the living quarters are dominated by this kang, a raised platform with flues underneath for heating. Inhabitants slept on the kang and in the winter much of the daily activity took place there. Most items of furniture, such as tables and chairs, are also common to Western usage but often have different designs that respond to specific customs or practical considerations. Screens were used to divide space in Chinese homes. Eating was not confined to a single room. People could eat in courtyard, garden, or inside. During the winter, people often took their meals on the kang.

“Chinese kitchens are different from Western kitchens. Often kitchens were not included in house plans. For richer families, cooking was done in the servants' quarters. In poorer families, cooking was done in the main room of the house or in a separate shed. In general, Chinese kitchens are more compact than Western counterparts. In the Chinese kitchen, the focus of activity generally centers on the stove, which dominates the kitchen space. In the space above the stove, there was often a nook for the kitchen god, who was said to protect the home. There is often a nook for the kitchen god. The kitchen god guaranteed domestic harmony. His image is on paper because it is burned each Chinese New Year, so that he can take a report of the family to the Emperor of Heaven.

Major Types of Chinese Furniture

Stools: 1) Square stool has no back and arms, and is one of the basic stool forms; 2) Folding stool is a cross-legged stool, consisting of eight straight pieces of wood. It is widely used and easy to carry. [Source: Shanghai Museum Education Department]

Chairs: 1) Official' hat armchair gets its name from its top rail, which looks like a Ming official hat. Such a chair with the ends of its top rail and arms protruding is called an "Official hat armchair with four protruding ends". One without these is called an "Southern official's hat armchair" 2) Armchair with curved rest are known to Westerners as the horseshoe armchair. 3) Folding chair with curved back is a a folding stool added with a back. There were two kinds until the Song dynasty ((960–1279): one with a straight back and the other with a curved back. The latter was popular in the Ming dynasty. Chinese folding chairs are built to come apart and be folded so they can be carried under the arm of one person. They feature serpentine wooden armrests, anchored by tendons, that easily flip up, allowing the seat and back to go flat. The headrest and footrest also fold flat. Unlike Chinese scholar's chair, which all are all form and no function, folding chairs are both beautiful and comfortable to sit in.

Armchair terms: 1) Top rail; 2) Spandrel, at the corner of a joint; 3) Side post; 4) Gooseneck post, the front supporting post of an arm; 5) Arch-shaped apron. Table Terms: 1) Ice-plate edge, a downward-contracting edge of a frame member; 2) Decorative strut; 3) Humpbacked stretcher; and 4) One leg with two aprons and one spandrel.

Tables: 1) Square table come in two types. The one called "Zhuo" has four legs supporting at the four corners; the other called "An" has its legs recessed from corners. A large square table big enough for eight people called "Baxianzhuo". 2) An Eight Immortals table is a narrow rectangular table. It could be used as a lute table, painting table or writing table. 3) The Half table could be used as a lute table, painting table or writing table. 4) Kang table is short table used on Kangs, it kind of chair-level bed that is usually built-up with bricks and can be heated underneath and also used for daytime sitting in northern China. 5) Narrow rectangular table with recessed legs is narrow and long and relatively high. One with a flat top is called "Pingtiao'an" in Chinese; one with everted flanges at the two ends of the top is called "Qiaotou'an". 6) Narrow rectangular trestle table has a framed floating panel, supported by two rectangular stands, and is easy to move.

Beds: 1) Canopy beds came in four- or six-post canopy varieties in imperial China. 2) Luohan bed have back and side railings. The railings of a Luohan bed, unlike that of a canopy bed, have no posts between the panel. The base of the bed can be made in different ways and maybe waisted or waistless.According to Altfield in London: It not only resembles a daybed but also has some similarities to kang tables and even rectangular stools. The railings of Luohan beds exist in many variations; when the railing is formed of three pieces the bed is called a three-paneled screen bed (sanpingfengshi ). If the railing has five pieces, back being made up by three pieces with the two single side panels, it is a five panel screen bed in Chinese (wupingfengshi).

Screens: 1) Folding screen is made from many panels that can be arranged in different configurations. 2) Serene set in a stand that has its central screen panel set in a stand. 3) Screen set in a stand with a removable panel has its central screen penal inserted into the grooves at the inner sides of the frame posts. So the panel is removable. 4) The ink-stone screen A kind of small screen placed on the narrow rectangular table for decoration or to protect the candle light from wind

Feng Shui and Furniture

Feng shui is a system of laws taken into consideration when organizing spatial arrangements and orientation of buildings and furniture that are believed to optimize the flow of energy (chi).Furniture is moved and mirrors and wind chimes are often added to direct good and evil spirits and forces to their proper places. Negative earth forces from the northwest can be held back and positive energy can be attracted, for example, by placing wind chimes in strategic places. Objects in a room can also placed in different arrangements and places according the birth sign of the occupant.

Common household feng shui practices include: 1) making entryways bright and inviting; 2) using mirrors to increase space; 3) removing furniture that blocks entrances; 4) directing desks and chairs towards the doorway; 5) keeping the television covered when in not use; 6) never leaving the toilet seat up; and 7) never placing a mirror at the foot of the bed. [Source: AP and Geomacy-Feng Shui Organization, San Francisco]

Windows should be opened occasionally to keep the energy flowing. Beds should be aligned in a north-south direction — even if that means they are arranged diagonally across a room — and should not face towards any closet. It is considered bad luck to move beds through the front gate of a house. It only happens after death or a divorce. The stove represents the source of food; mirrors should be placed behind it to increase the positive energy of the burners and reflect approaching people.

Having a chair or desk under a cross beam , near a back door, or next to an aisle s aid to bring bad qi. Large-leafed pot plants are said to create opportunities for pay increases; a bowl of goldfish brings good luck; and a miniature fan can improve the flow of qi and make one more popular with colleagues.

Some feng shui touches such as installing fish tanks filled with expensive feng shui arowana fish that are said to prevent disasters and help homeowners get rich — are expensive. Pricey feng shui crystals and toilets with a special positive energy tanks are also available. Other feng shui touches are cheap. A simple curtain can be raised in front of a storage room to deflect negative energy.

Pillows, Beds and Chairs in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““One of the typical instances of different standards of comfort between ourselves and the Chinese is in the conception of what a pillow ought to be. In Western lands, a pillow is a bag of feathers, adjusted to support the head. In China a pillow is a support for the neck, either a small stool of bamboo, a block of wood, or more commonly a brick. No Occidental could use a Chinese pillow in a Chinese way without torture, and it is not less certain that no Chinese would tolerate under his head for ten minutes the bags which we use for that purpose. We have spoken of the singular fact that the Chinese do not to any extent weave wool. It is still more unaccountable that they take no apparent interest in the feathers which they pluck in such vast quantities from the fowls which they consume. It would be exceedingly easy to make up wadded bedding, by employing feathers as lining, and the cost of the feathers would be little or nothing, since they are allowed to blow away as beyond the use even of the strict economy of the Chinese. Yet aside from sale to foreigners, we do not know of any use to which such feathers are at present put, except that the larger ones are loosely tied to sticks to serve as dusters. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“To an Occidental, the ideal bed is at once elastic and firm. The best example of such is perhaps that made from what is known as " woven wire, " which in recent years has come into such general use. But when one of the finest hospitals in China was furnished with these luxurious appliances, the kind-hearted ' physician who had planned for them, was disgusted to find that as soon as his back was turned, those patients who were strong enough to do so, crawled from their elastic beds, down upon the floor, where they felt at home!

“Dr. Williams remarks that the Chinese are the only Asiatic nation using chairs, but according to our ideas, Chinese chairs are models of discomfort. Some of them are made on a pattern which prevailed in England in the days of Queen Elizabeth or Queen Anne, tall, straight of back, and inordinately angular. The more common ones are shaped so as to accommodate persons who weigh about two hundred and fifty pounds, but the strength of the chairs is by no means proportioned to the magnitude, and they soon fall to pieces.

Rooms, Central Heating and Kangs in China

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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 the 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.

Increased Materialism in China

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. In the 2000s, the "new three" were a television, refrigerator and washing machine. The "newer three" were a cell phone, house and car. Also sought after were 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.

20080225-Chinabride on cell phone textuallyspeaking com.jpg The following are the "Three Most Desired Items" of each decade:
1970s: sewing machine, rice cooker, bicycle
1980s: colour tv, refrigerator, washing machine
1990s: private apartment, car, computer
2000s: luxury home, sports car, home entertainment system
[Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

As with food supplies and clothing, the availability of housewares went through several stages in China. Simple, inexpensive household items, like thermoses, cooking pans, and clocks were stocked in department stores and other retail outlets all over China from the 1950s on. Relatively expensive consumer durables became available more gradually. In the 1960s production and sales of bicycles, sewing machines, wristwatches, and transistor radios grew to the point that these items became common household possessions, followed in the late 1970s by television sets and cameras. In the 1980s supplies of furniture and electrical appliances increased along with family incomes. Household survey data indicated that by 1985 most urban families owned two bicycles, at least one sofa, a writing desk, a wardrobe, a sewing machine, an electric fan, a radio, and a television. Virtually all urban adults owned wristwatches, half of all families had washing machines, 10 percent had refrigerators, and over 18 percent owned color televisions. Rural households on average owned about half the number of consumer durables owned by urban dwellers. Most farm families had 1 bicycle, about half had a radio, 43 percent owned a sewing machine, 12 percent had a television set, and about half the rural adults owned wristwatches. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

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 chairs, 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.

Dung Fires and Cooking in Poor Villages in China

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. In the old days, candles were regarded by many as prohibitively expensive. Cooking in villages is often done in a courtyardon 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. 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.

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.

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

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. 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.

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. Despite this, 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. 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. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, February 29, 2012]

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.”

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.

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.”

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; 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.

Last updated October 2021

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