On Winter Dress Strategy in North China Vs. South China

This sweater served me well during the winter months in Hangzhou — but in Beijing, it’s another story.

The temperature that morning in Beijing had dipped below zero degrees Celsius. Yet there I was sitting in a restaurant that afternoon, feeling sweat moisten my brow. I seriously contemplated taking off my heavy blue-and-gold knit sweater — once indispensible for surviving the winter in Hangzhou — which I had layered over an equally warm long-sleeved thermal shirt. I even wondered if it was overkill to have on long underwear beneath my jeans.

Clearly, I had forgotten about the indoor heating in Beijing, and how it might mean rethinking how I dress for the winter. That I might actually need to wear lighter, more layered clothing under my jacket than in Hangzhou, despite the huge difference in latitude.

This is one of the ironies of the North China versus South China divide.

Down in Hangzhou, it’s not uncommon to see people completely bundled up indoors with their coats on. In South China, you wear your coat so much in the winter that it’s almost more important than your sweater. My mother-in-law once urged me to buy more jackets, concerned that people kept seeing me wearing the same one every day. (After all, they’re less likely to get a glimpse of those nice sweaters I bought, given how cold the indoors can be at times.)

You would think the same winter dress strategy would apply up in more northerly Beijing, with people donning even warmer, heavier layers to survive those bitter winds from Siberia and the Arctic. And while I’m sure this would be true for anyone forced to spend much of the winter toiling outdoors for work, it’s not for your average person who spends most of the day indoors.

I commute between my apartment and the office buildings, each a snug oasis of warmth thanks to the plentiful heating provided here in Beijing. Of course would I never need to keep my parka on indoors in either place. But sometimes, even your average sweater feels like a little too much – just like in that restaurant. This is a world where you might need to peel off that sweater every now and then, or hug it a little closer if a cold breeze happens to sneak through that window or door.

The problem is, I’ve spent years building up a wardrobe to survive winters in more southern Hangzhou. I jettisoned many of my light cardigans in favor of more substantial sweaters I’d wear over thermal underwear. Before we moved to Beijing, I remember feeling grateful I had these sweaters to see me through the season. But that was before I realized Beijing’s heating can be so abundant that, occasionally, the word “sauna” comes to mind.

Oh, how I wish I hadn’t tossed those cardigans. Especially since it is so darned difficult to find things in my size in China. (But that’s another story…)

Eventually, I’ll adapt my clothing to Beijing winters, heating and all. I’m already halfway there with an extra-warm parka to protect me from the frigid winds.

Still, I can’t help but recall another irony of the situation — that I, a woman who grew up in northerly Cleveland, Ohio, a city with a reputation for blustery winters, am having to re-learn how to dress for winter in the North.

What’s your winter dress strategy? Have you noticed a difference between dressing for winter in North China versus South China?

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4 Replies to “On Winter Dress Strategy in North China Vs. South China”

  1. Meanwhile, here I am in “balmy” Suzhou. It is 13 degrees (maybe 15 inside the apartment) and I already got the first chillblain of the season! In Beijing I only owned one set of long underwear because I hardly ever wore it, only if I was going to be outside for a long time. Here I have a complete collection, apart from several hot water bottles, an electric hand warmer, a bed warmer, a small radiator… I didn’t need any of these things in the north! Besides, it’s true what you say about the sweaters, it doesn’t matter what I wear because the only thing people see is my coat!

    1. Oh Marta, you poor thing! I hope your chilblains get better!

      Thank you for sharing…yeah, I used to have a whole collection of gadgets to survive the cold indoors like that. It’s tough and I feel for you. Sending hugs!

  2. I wonder right now why they decided to split the country in North and South when it comes to heating?
    Appearently Xi’an belongs to the North and thus they have heating, but not really…only the new buildings have heating. Each apartment I have visited built before 2000s have no heating at all! For some reason my in-laws old apartment block got gas heating a couple of years ago. The thing is that the building is from the 50s and will be torn down soon 😮

    1. Hey Timo, thanks for the comment! That is really interesting about Xi’an and the heating issues there — can’t believe there are quite a few people who go without heating. Kind of sad your in-laws’ place is going to be torn down soon, just after finally getting gas heating.

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