An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

Wan Lixin
Urban aesthetics leave some residents high and dry, but the old tradition of hanging laundry outside hasn't been entirely washed away.
Wan Lixin

Most people think clothes dried outdoors have a special fresh fragrance, but urban management authorities tend to view airing of garments and linens out in the open as an affront to the aesthetic image the city wants to project.

However, attempts to curtail the popular practice haven't met with unqualified success. Laundry flapping in the breeze can still be seen in some streets and lanes in Shanghai and is ubiquitous on home balconies.

The display of our personal apparel for all to see does depend on climate and residential environment. In the hot, dry northwestern region of Xinjiang, for example, clothes dry in two to five hours, whether hung indoors or out.

In the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, laundry is perhaps less conspicuous because it has to be hung inside the dominant, burglar-proof iron cages installed on windows and balconies.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

Xinjiang in northwestern China is so desert-like that clothes dry as quickly inside as outside.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

Caged balconies in an old neighborhood in the southern city of Shenzhen limit access to sunshine for clothes drying.

I think drying laundry does tell us something about the way we look at life.

I've lived in quite a few places before coming to Shanghai, but it is here that I have acquired a deep-seated appreciation of rooms facing south.

Consider Jia Yi (200-168 BC). He was a counsellor to the emperor and a seminal figure in making Confucianism the orthodoxy of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24AD). After court intrigues, he was banished from what is today Xi'an in dry northwestern China to the less civilized, humid southern city of what is today Changsha.

Jia was understandably gloomy. He worried that the "moisture and the miasma in the south might lead to an early death." Indeed, he died at age 32.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

The densely packed bamboo poles, electric wires, ropes and steel pipes are filled with colorful clothes that are drying in the sun, forming a unique street scene.

While humidity is great for vegetation and, it is said, for women's complexions, it can wreak havoc with trying to dry laundry outdoors and turns it into a veritable nightmare during the long plum rainy season Shanghai is notorious for in early summer.

But locals are nothing if not resourceful in adapting to weather and making the most of limited sunshine.

"In the past, when we lived in an old neighborhood in Yangpu District, we would dry our laundry on bamboo poles stretching over a small courtyard from our side to the wall of a neighbor," said Hu Baolian, who was relocated to housing in Pudong decades ago. "Some people would even hang laundry on powerlines."

Now 77 and still active in community work, she recalled those difficult years when living space was limited, children were many and laundry loads were big.

Despite now living in a high-rise apartment that is much better appointed than her old neighborhood, Hu still dries her laundry in the sun. But there is one difference. The bamboo poles have been replaced by retractable racks installed immediately outside her balcony. If the weather is not good, she used racks on her balcony.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

People in Shanghai still dry laundry in the sun.

She noted, however, that while the old exterior racks are tolerated, new ones are not. Any complaints from neighbors about new installations would lead property managers to have them removed.

Still, balcony drying has the advantage of relieving any worries about rain.

"In the old days, neighbors knew each other and if it suddenly started to rain, they would alert others to bring their laundry in," Hu said. "Today, it's safer for working couples to hang their laundry on balconies."

For people her age, the idea of abandoning open-air drying in favor of an electric dryer is unthinkable.

A Chinese friend surnamed Shen, who spent some years in Australia, said that "the only shortcoming with using dryers is that the clothes need to be ironed afterward.

"With drying in sunlight, all you need to do is give the clothes a good shake before putting them outside to dry," he said.

Many people here tend to mystify or even sentimentalize the drying of laundry in the open air.

"It has a crispy, dry fragrance," one person insisted. "The fluffy quilt is more cuddly," said another. There's no doubt that some residents would continue to dry laundry outdoors even if they had free access to electric dryers.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

A migrant worker airs family quilts on river railings in Shanghai's Minhang District, hiding her face because authorities frown on the practice.

But access to the sunshine can be a luxury.

Recently I saw a woman adjusting a lineup of quilts airing on rails by a river in Minhang District. When she realized I was trying to take a picture, she pressed her face against a quilt to avoid being photographed. She explained that urban management authorities frown on the practice.

Some neighborhoods provide communal outdoor drying racks for residents. My in-laws, who live on the third floor of an apartment complex, use the racks to dry larger items, like coats and linens.

Sometimes the zeal to dry laundry outdoors goes a bit too far.

In my apartment building, for instance, a first-floor resident reduced a beautiful magnolia to stubble in order to support their outdoor clothes rack. They proceeded to turn what was a public garden area into a private courtyard, complete with paved boardwalk.

I was among the residents irritated by their reckless act, and raised the issue with property management. The issue got bogged down in red tape for a long time, but the guilty party was finally forced to remove the boardwalk. However, most of the drying apparatus remains.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

Drying racks have been installed in public areas of a residential community in Pudong, Shanghai.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air

A lucky street shop owner airs laundry in the sunshine.

Perhaps drying laundry outside is just a natural extension of the abiding love of nature embedded in the Chinese national psyche.

In a well-known excerpt of "The Analects," Confucius once sounded out several of his disciples about their ambitions. The master showed thinly veiled disdain for those who voiced grandiose aspirations, but was pleased to hear the answer of an acolyte named Zeng Dian, who said his only ambition was to be content with daily life.

In a passage familiar to all Chinese, Zeng Dian said, "At the end of spring, with the spring clothes already having been finished, I would like, in the company of five or six young men and six or seven children, to cleanse ourselves in the Yihe River, to revel in the cool breezes at the Altar for Rain, and then return home singing."

No doubt his laundry dried very quickly.

An apology for the cherished tradition of drying laundry in the open air
Tan Thian Seng

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