Notes from a pilot's kid

Winter Heating in Southern China

When I told a friend I had arrived in Changsha and began to mention the weather, she shared with me an old joke about winters in Southern China:


A southerner said: Today was really cold; the high temperature was three degrees. A man from Shandong heard this and laughed: it was three degrees below zero where I’m from. A man from Beijing also laughed: up here it’s thirteen below. A man from Heilongjiang heard this and laughed even harder: up here it’s twenty-three below. The southerner heard all of this, sneered, and replied: I was talking about indoors. Indoors! Ok?

The punch line probably makes it clear: homes, schools, and other buildings in southern China do not have heating systems despite winter temperatures consistently dropping below freezing. So while those in the north can escape extreme low temperatures by just staying inside in their own homes, southerners do not have the same luxury.

To handle the cold, the standard solution is a large space heater for wealthier homes, but more traditionally it’s a heated table. My friend in Zunyi, Guizhou had an electric version as shown in the photo below; older homes will simply have a table with a hole in the middle containing extremely hot orange electric stove-like wires.

Heated table at a home in Zunyi

With the touch of a button on the digital panel of this electric version, every surface of the table becomes warm: the base, the underside, the surface, and also a center hot plate can boil water or soup in the center of the table.

But other parts of the home remain cold (unless perhaps you invest in an electric blanket or small space heater for the bedroom). So this table as the sole source of heat in a home ultimately encourages family members and house guests to sit together when spending time at home to be within limb’s reach of the table’s warmth. Now, sitting together frequently doesn’t automatically mean that family members interact more, but I’d guess that this is likely true, and even if it’s not, it still means that families are more aware of each other’s activities and habits than families who are not spending as much time in such close proximity.

In general it’s very fitting that a source of warmth for a Chinese home is family and group-oriented, as there are many other aspects of Chinese culture that are also family and group-oriented. For example, besides snacks and street food, most restaurants in China are designed to serve groups of three or more; tables are circular, dishes are large, everything is meant to be served from communal portions that are most fitting for large groups.

There was certainly a time in America where heat came from one source in a home, and everyone was naturally drawn to a central fireplace on winter evenings, but for most I think that time has passed. Seeing this central source of warmth for a typical home in Southern China has made me wonder if its function helps reinforce Chinese culture’s family-oriented nature by continuing to physically bring everyone together around the same table at home.