The Danwei Community

Last week, we received the terrific news that Wuhan, a city that I and many others around the world have been cheering on for months, has officially come out of quarantine. As I watched some videos during the quarantine period, the organized volunteer help in local compounds really demonstrated to me how China’s old-style residential living have come in useful during this time of crisis. Known as the Danwei community, this remnant of the Communist Era had still been the prevalent style of living in China until the early 1990s, and it was very much part of the first dozen years of my life.

单位, dan wei, or unit, refers to one’s work place. Back then, everyone worked for the state, whether you were a civil servant, teacher, engineer or factory worker. Your danwei not only paid your salary, but provided accommodation, and subsidies towards bills, healthcare and childcare. I was born into my grandfather’s danwei accommodation in one of Guangzhou’s old residential tenements. A few years after, my parents moved to their own place at my father’s danwei flat in a more modern part of the city. When he got stationed in Shenzhen, we went to live there in serviced apartment gardens. After he moved abroad, my mother and I returned to Guangzhou to live in the flat attached to her municipal civil service post in a traditional Cantonese alley. Whether the facilities were old, simple or luxurious for those times, they shared the same kind of essence.

What I remember most vividly is the sense of community. I had many friends at school who were the children of my mother’s colleagues. After school, the vast courtyards, gardens and car parks that were our parents’ offices, would become our playground. Even the meeting rooms became our temporary territory when there weren’t any meetings, they were some of the few places that had air conditioning in those days. During the downpours of the monsoon season, a couple of the grown-ups would wade through the shin-deep waters of the streets (while the rest of were busy at work), with all our anoraks and rain boots, so we wouldn’t get soaked on the way back home. Our supplies of gas, cooking oil and rice supplies were regularly topped up by the bureau’s facilities staff who brought them to our doors, so my mother didn’t need to worry about the heavy-lifting. My mother had a lot of out-of-hours work engagement, fortunately most households in the compound could be counted on to put out an extra pair of chopsticks on the table.

In those day, nobody had a lot of possessions, or disposable income, although everybody got a share of whatever goods were available. I never knew what my mother would bring home, a box of guavas when there’d been a surplus that month, a crate of the newly released local honey and kumquat soft-drink, the latest imported product – Yakult, or tickets to the new Bolshoi ballet in town. When my mother couldn’t make it home for lunch and siesta, I’d go to the danwei canteen with some of her fanpiao (meal rations). It was loud, the queues were long and the grumpy staff gave you two second to choose your three dishes through the tiny window before they chucked ladle-fulls into your lunchbox, but the food tasted very good and there were plenty of choices.

Later, as an adult, I came to realize that while this way of living was ideal when it came to rearing children and caring for the elderly, for it meant that nobody’s old and young relatives were ever neglected or forgotten, the lack of privacy and personal freedom would have been hard for many. Moving to Britain as a child, I didn’t so much notice how big a change of life-style it must have been. Along with the rise of private companies, housing ownership, and economic reforms in the late 1990s that led to the closure of state-owned enterprises across the country, also came the loss of an entire way of life that had been widespread since the 1950s. Often, it’s only when something disintegrates that it can be best defined. Since then, this loss of a sense of community felt by the older generations of China has been explored by artists such as Jia Zhangke in 24 City, and even science fiction writers like Xia Jia.

It’s heart-warming to see that during a disaster the scale of the New Coronavirus outbreak, people in Wuhan (and elsewhere in China) have come together again, whatever their vocation, to help distribute central supplies to the local weak and infirm, to handle their prescriptions, to check-in on them on a daily basis. Taking care of those in need around them has been an excellent social tradition of the Chinese for centuries, and certainly one of the best aspects of Danwei communities. Even if a lot of danwei have been now replaced by gongsi (company), that spirit lives on. I hope it continues to do so.



Posted in Culture and tagged , , , , , , , ,