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.