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Urban China's new wave of platonic cohabitation
(China Today)
Updated: 2004-03-03 08:54

"I am a man of integrity with a university education, and have recently begun renting a fully furnished apartment in Chaoyang District. I would like to share it with a tidy, outgoing woman of a similar educational background." The average Chinese person would read this as a Lonely Hearts ad. The advertiser is, however, genuinely seeking a housemate, nothing more, of the opposite sex.

In their free time, the three housemates chat and watch TV in the sitting room.
Ads like this are becoming increasingly common in China's big cities. Results of a survey on 4,000 white-collar workers conducted by a Shanghai community service center showed that 95 percent were open to sharing an apartment, 85 percent of whom would prefer a housemate of the opposite sex. Those that strongly advocate man/woman apartment shares have gone so far as to come up with a slogan: "Let's be lodgers!"

A Supplementary Solution

A few years ago, a single man and woman sharing accommodation would be construed as cohabitation, in the sense of what used to be called "living in sin." Today, people looking to share their abode with someone of the opposite gender use the term according to its etymology i.e. co: together + habitation: dwelling = shared dwelling, period.

Two practical reasons for such an arrangement are that it saves money and precludes psychological isolation. According to research, most mixed lodgers are single, between the ages of 22 and 30. They are generally newly graduated, on modest incomes and consequently find a monthly rent of one or two thousand yuan beyond their means. Moreover, having become accustomed to a gregarious lifestyle after living in university dorms for four years, after a hard day's work and interaction with colleagues on a strictly business level, they are loath to come home to an empty apartment. Such young professionals generally prefer to share with someone from a similar educational background of a like mentality.

In any kind of apartment share there is always a demarcation of boundaries. Certain areas, like the sitting room, kitchen and bathroom, are common, but bedrooms are strictly private space. Utility costs only are shared, and in most cases both parties have separate social circles.

Selecting a Housemate

Qiqi and Zhenzhen do most of cleaning and cooking.
Controversy has reigned ever since mixed gender lodging began to catch on in big cities. Traditionalists believe that women in such partnerships are vulnerable. Cai shares her apartment with a man and is dismissive of these fears. "I may be prepared to live alongside a man I have never met before, he must first measure up to my personal criteria." Cai's current male housemate is her second. Her first was a long-term colleague, so she had no worries at all about personal safety. When he moved out she was especially careful about finding a new tenant. "I interviewed five men before deciding on my present housemate. Apart from seeing how we got along, we also checked each other's ID and exchanged related information. I called each candidate's office to verify his details."

Chen works at a TV station and rented her apartment last July after graduating from university. Her current housemate is a young man working in real estate whom she never met prior to sharing her apartment with him. "Finding the right accommodation was not easy, partly because of location problems, but largely due to landlords' refusing to allow me to share with a man," says Chen. Her reasons for preferring a male rather than female housemate are practical: "I am an outgoing, straightforward person with no interest in the trivialities and gossip of female companionship. Upon graduating I felt disinclined to share an apartment with a former roommate at university, and opted instead for my current housemate Bai. Many people, particularly my former roommate, are mystified at my behavior, but I feel no compunction to make any explanations, being happy to live the way I please." Chen's housemate Mr Bai also prefers to share accommodation with someone of the opposite sex. "After all the hours I spend with my male colleagues during the day, it is very pleasant to chat with and enjoy the company of a woman out of working hours," he says.

Other advocates of mixed gender apartment shares have similar views. Women commonly agree that lodging with a man brings a feeling of security, and men appreciate going back to a home with a pleasantly feminine touch. As the old Chinese saying goes: Things become easier when a man and woman pair up.

Exclusively Big City

Cohabitation occurs only in the bigger, more broadminded cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. A Xu who works for an advertising company in Beijing was once assigned to Shandong's Jinan for six months. On hearing from a man she had met that he had an apartment with a spare room close to her workplace, she asked if he would like to rent it to her, but he demurred. "He wouldn't allow me to move in, despite my offering good rent, because he thought it would cause gossip."

Many with housemates of the opposite gender admit that it is only distance from their smaller home cities that emboldens them to live within such an arrangement, and seldom speak of it to their families. A Li sorely regretted telling her parents that she shared her apartment with a man, as they gave her no peace until she lied and said she had moved out.

Sharing an apartment with a person of the opposite sex is not illegal, but many people oppose it. Results of an investigation conducted by Beijing Youth Daily showed that 44.0 percent accepted the practice, 24.5 percent were neutral, and 31.5 percent were against it. However, on being asked their attitude should one of the cohabitants concerned be a family member, 37.8 percent of those that had otherwise been either acquiescent or neutral unhesitatingly joined the ranks of those in absolute opposition to the idea.

No Big Deal

More and more young people have a rational and practical approach to man/woman lodging partnerships. Nowadays, apartment-sharing notices on posted Internet bulletin boards are likely to state: "Gender immaterial." Liu Yong, who is studying for a master's program entrance examination near Beijing's Zhongguancun, echoes this sentiment. "I don't care if I share with a man or a woman, as long as the apartment is close to the university I want to enter and we get along. I'm just looking for a fellow dweller."

When recalling how quickly the controversy in the 1930s caused by Chinese men and women using the same swimming pool died down, men and women sharing apartments may soon become as commonplace in China as in the West.

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