When I was too small to remember, my family lived in Scotland in a house that my mother said, “lacked central heating.” By that she meant each room was warmed by fireplaces, kept going by a servant known as a fireman.

In China, central heating means centralized heating in which the State operates the furnace and sends it out to the people.

Some 50 years ago, the government drew a line across the nation. Those north of it get heat, those south get to shiver. And modern nation though it pretends to be, it’s still that way.

Julie Makinen

On Saturday, and every Nov. 15, people who live in apartment complexes in Beijing, Harbin and hundreds of other cities north of the boundary will rejoice as government central heating plants are fired up, flooding warmth into citizens’ abodes for four months. Those who live south of the line — even by a mile — will suffer the season with nary a puff of steam from a radiator.

The great heating divide, which traces the Huai River and Qin Mountains near the latitude 33 degrees north, dates from the 1950s. Back then, China started to install centralized systems for residential areas with assistance from the Soviet Union. But China was facing an extreme energy shortage in those years, and Premier Zhou Enlai suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known demarcation between north and south, as a cutoff point.

The divide was not ironclad. The Huai River runs through Xinyang in Henan province, but because more than 75% of the people live south of the river, the city was left out of the heating club. About 66 miles north, Zhumadian in Henan enjoys central heat. But go 43 miles north to Luohe, and there are no radiators in sight.

The line divides two of China’s largest leading cities, with Shanghai, where the temperature average is about 40 degrees in January, just below the line while Beijing, at a chillier 25-degree average for the month, is well above it.

It’s not an easy inequity to resolve, perhaps made all the more difficult this week by the announcement of an agreement between China and the U.S. to curb greenhouse gas emissions. If China took the unlikely step of providing central heating to all the residential urban areas in the south, it would need to burn an additional 50 million tons of coal each year, Jiang Yi, director of a building energy research center at Tsinghua University, told the Beijing News.

Unlike the U.S., where housing codes typically require residential buildings to meet certain indoor temperature minimums in cold weather, Chinese cities do not have such standards. In areas where the government doesn’t provide central heating for the whole city, residents are left to deal with the cold on their own.

Imagine that! Instead of collectivized comfort, you operate and control your own.