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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
China's communal tradition dying out
Men playing Chinese chess, Beijing
People are encouraged to do things as a group

For centuries in China, communal lifestyles have dominated. Families have aspired to house five generations under one roof. Friends wash together, students share crowded dormitories, and neighbours live in each other's pockets.

It has created a culture of communalism. Children are encouraged to put the group first, themselves second.

People do not expect privacy. And individualism is discouraged.

A bath house in Beijing
Bath houses are a way of experiencing communal living
But like most things in modern China, that tradition is changing.

The new middle class can afford to buy personal space - in the form of new apartments, their own car, and overseas holidays.

And new money is buying new aspirations and perhaps even new values.

Visiting the bath house

If you really want to experience China's communal traditions, a Beijing bath house is the best place to start.

At the not-very-aptly-named prosperous garden bath house in Beijing, I had no sooner undressed, than a group of middle-aged women began to comment on my body.

They all loudly agreed that foreigner's bodies look quite different from Chinese.

"She has quite big breasts," I heard one say as I scurried off red-faced.

China is not an easy place for people sensitive about personal space. People here are used to living very close to each other.

Children are taught to put their family first - not to strike out on their own

In the bath house, women scrubbed each other's backs, and doused each other with water. Occasionally they stopped to inspect a new-comer. I was overcome with shyness, and left feeling incurably Western.

Later on, in the massage room, I struck up a conversation with Mrs Liu, a middle-aged factory worker, and a regular at the prosperous garden.

Men playing a board game
There is a culture of community in China
"The problem with you foreigners is that you're too individualistic and too selfish," she told me bossily. "We Chinese like to do things together".

Mrs Liu had a point. At home, at work, and at school in China, people are encouraged to do things as a group. In the countryside many families all share one bed.

After work and on the weekend, colleagues often socialise only with each other. Children are taught to put their family first - not to strike out on their own. It all translates into a culture where people put the group first, and personal space second.

After drying off, Mrs Liu invited me home for lunch. It was just around the corner, in one of central Beijing's narrow winding alleyways.

Communal living

It was a down-at-heel neighbourhood, with high unemployment, and run-down housing. Mrs Liu, her husband and her son share eight square metres of living space.

There is room for two beds, a table, and a TV. No bathroom and no kitchen.

Mrs Liu shares the rest of her little courtyard with 13 other families. Televisions blare and nosy neighbours gossip.

Mrs Liu showed me the compound's shared toilet. It had no doors, and no partitions. A man pulled up his trousers as we walked past.

Even Mrs Liu grimaced. Sometimes communal life just spells embarrassment.

It all reminded me of when I studied at a Chinese university. In the dormitories, students were crammed six to a tiny room. In the morning they went running together, after dinner they studied together.

But at night the campus was always carpeted with couples kissing passionately, desperately looking for privacy.

This is the downside of communal living. And just around the corner from Mrs Liu's house, it is changing.

All through central Beijing, wrecking balls are knocking down old housing, old bath houses, and old ways of life. In their place, new apartment blocks and new lifestyles are sprouting.

Living alone

My friend Sissy Chen has just moved into a two-bedroom apartment in one of the shiny new towers.

She lives by herself, with a huge collection of designer clothes, memorabilia from overseas holidays, and, of course, a shiny new bathroom.

Chinese woman
The Chinese are used to living close to each other
She runs her own TV production company, she rarely visits her family, and has never even laid eyes on her neighbours. And, of course, she never goes to bath houses.

By traditional Chinese standards it is a shockingly independent life. But Sissy is part of China's young middle class. And, these days, this is what most urbanites aspire to.

I asked Sissy if she though she was self-centred or too individualistic.

"I have the money to live by myself," she said with a shrug, "And now I'm used to it".

And in the end, even Mrs Liu had to admit that communal living had its problems.

"We eat and go to the toilet in the same room," she confided glumly as I left. "I'd like to move into one of the new apartments," she said. "I'd like some space."

China's new middle class is not just buying houses and cars, it is buying a new lifestyle. In old China, communal living and communal values went hand-in-hand.

But now many Chinese aspire to their own space and a new culture of individualism may be emerging.

See also:

08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
02 Feb 02 | Media reports
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