Monthly Archives: January 2013

China’s Great Central Heat Line

In the West, central heat generally means a central furnace that produces heat and distributes it throughout one house. In China, central heat means a city-wide centralized system that produces heat and distributes it to homes and offices through a network of dedicated pipes.

Since ancient times, Chinese people have divided north and south at the Qingling Mountain Range, stretching east-west south of the city of Xian in southern Shaanxi Province, and the Huaihe River, stretching east-west between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. In the 1950s in an effort to best allocate scarce resources, the central government designated this line as the central heat line.

Winter in northern China is much colder and longer than in the southern parts. Winter lasts up to six months in northeast China, where temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees. North of the line in cities like Beijing and Dalian, the government built and continues to maintain community-wide central heating systems that produce indoor temperatures so warm that people sometimes open windows.

Compared to the northern parts, winter in South China is warmer and shorter. Temperatures in South China rarely drop below freezing. In some places winter lasts little more than a month. In these areas, central heating was never built, and even basic thermal insulation is generally absent. Exterior and interior walls are constructed of cement that absorbs and stores winter’s cold. Cold air leaks in through window frames and under doors.

But in Shanghai and other cities just south of the central heat line, people also feel the harshness of winter just like their neighbors north of the line. With winter 2012-13’s temperatures colder than usual, people in South China are complaining about the cold and asking the central government to provide central heating in colder parts of South China.

We spent the winter of 2010-11 studying Mandarin in Kunming, located in far southwest China. Winter is Kunming’s dry season with fine sunny days but nights that cooled to near freezing. Between December and March the air inside our dormitory, dining room and classrooms felt colder than the air outside. We bought a space heater for our dormitory at the nearby Walmart and, during class, tucked hot water bottles under our down jackets.

In Shanghai those who can afford the electric bills install a central furnace unit or modern heat-pump air conditioners on the wall in living areas and bedrooms. In winter these heat pumps run in reverse to provide inside heat, but become inefficient once the outside temperature dips below freezing. Even when heated, rooms are often drafty. Floors are especially cold. To keep comfortably warm, most people dress in layers. At school children wear coats all day. Dining out in all but upscale restaurants, people wear coats during the entire meal. Less affluent people simply pile on more layers.

Shanghai Christmas Holiday Season 2012

IMG_0432December 25, 2012 was Tom’s and my third consecutive Christmas in China. Tom is working on a project for the Shanghai branch of a European pharmaceutical company. The company’s Shanghai office, along with the offices of many Western companies, was closed on Christmas Day. But for most people this year’s Christmas Day, falling on a Tuesday, was an ordinary work day.

That said, people everywhere love holidays and businesses everywhere love occasions to inspire people to shop. Especially in places like Shanghai where foreigners and their various holidays are quite visible, Chinese have adopted their own version of celebrating foreign holidays – St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Bastille Day, Halloween, Christmas – Cinco de Mayo and June ‘Teenth have yet to catch on. My Mandarin teacher says that any holiday is a good excuse to get together with family or friends to dine around a large round table, play cards or majiang, and sing karaoke. Most often such groups are extended family, classmates from as far back as elementary school, or work colleagues – but rarely casual friends.

For or Christmas dinner we dined at Quanjude, not just any old restaurant, but a branch of a famous Beijing restaurant specializing in Peking Duck. Extended families gathered around the adjacent tables probably pitied the two foreigners dining practically alone.

From the balcony of our 29th floor apartment, we look down into the courtyard of the historic Pure Heart Church. A few days before Christmas all the courtyard’s trees were festooned with tiny colored lights. I decided to observe Christmas Eve by joining a huge throng of people attending the Monday evening service.

The large sanctuary was packed standing-room-only. Two large meeting halls open off the courtyard. Both were packed with people watching the service by video feed. The crowd even overflowed into the courtyard. After the minister finished his sermon, the large choir performed several pieces ending with the Hallelujah Chorus sung in Handel’s English. Everyone stood. The service ended with the congregation singing Joy to the World in Chinese. I sang too – in English.

I’ve been surprised that many of the Chinese people I’ve met since living in Shanghai are practicing Christians. Before “liberation,” Christian missionaries, both Western and home-grown Chinese, worked extensively in China since the mid-1800s. Even though the percentage of Christians is low relative to China’s population, the actual number is quite large.

Solar New Year is a Chinese national holiday so business, government offices and schools (but not retail stores) were closed January 1-3. (To make up for Wednesday and Thursday, January 2 & 3 off, the central government decreed business as usual for schools, government offices and government-owned companies on Saturday and Sunday, January 5 & 6. So from Friday, January 4, through Friday, January 11, our next door neighbor, who is an engineer and manager with the government-owned electric power company, will work eight days straight.

The BIG holiday is Chinese New Year, known here as Spring Festival. Schools will close for a month. Businesses, government offices and many construction sites and manufacturing plants will close for at least a week. All over China, people will jam every form of transportation as they return to their hometowns to spend Spring Festival with their extended families.

This lunar New Year’s Day falls on February 10 – the first day of Spring Festival. February 9 is Spring Festival Eve, a festive occasion like Christmas Eve in the West. This year we leave for the USA on February 8 to spend Spring Festival with our own family and old friends at home.

If you haven’t already read them and are interested, here are links to previous posts about the Pure Heart Church and Shanghai Christmas 2011.