Life of the elderly in China

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is racing headlong into a tidal wave of gray hair. In 2014 China’s aged population reached 200 million, or 1 elderly person in every 7 Chinese. How to live a quality old-age life for one fifth or more of one’s lifetime is a practical issue.

elderly china

Contributing Writer
Cai Min
特约记者 蔡敏
Wu Ying, in her 70s, is a famous elderly lady living in Beijing. In her retirement, she has not followed suit with traditional elderly Chinese whose lives revolve around their children and grandchildren; instead, she has fallen in love with street dancing. You will see her sporting a funky hairdo, wearing an Armani hat, a T-shirt decorated with shiny metallic pieces, and a pair of Capri pants, into the pockets of which she shoves her hands, every now and then voicing “heng heng ha hei”. Reporters from the United States, Germany and France have come to visit her. One foreign magazine called her a “fashionable elderly lady in China”. Wu Ying herself feels that she “makes a good representative of China’s elderly ladies of the new century”. Today, she heads a “Granny Street Dance Group” whose members include over 60 elderly ladies just as trendy as herself. She has also taught street dance to more than a thousand elderly people.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is racing headlong into a tidal wave of gray hair. By the end of 2009, elderly people over 60 numbered 167 million, 12.5% of the total population. With an annual increase of 8 million elderly, China is fast becoming an aged society. According to the latest statistics, the average life expectation of Chinese is 73.05 years and this number is increasing. How to live a quality old-age life for onefifth or more of one’s lifetime is a practical issue.

elderly china

Personalized old age

The Chinese people place a lot of emphasis on family values. Traditionally, it has been considered perfectly normal for elderly people to make sacrifices for their children. On weekdays, the gray-haired elderly waiting outside the gates of kindergartens or schools to drop off or pick up their grandchildren are a familiar sight; on weekends, they are responsible for sending their grandchildren to various kinds of after-school learning sessions. They often get so tired out that they doze off on buses.

Traditionally, it has been considered perfectly normal for elderly people to make sacrifices for their children. But recently more and more elderly people have undergone “an awakening of individualism” that reminds them of the importance of leading a quality life in their latter years.

However, this attitude is quietly changing, especially in cities. Old people are now pursuing their own personal lives in old age. At 60, after five years of high school, taking the national college entrance exam three times (passing twice ) and dropping out of school once, Tong Zhengguo was finally admitted by Hebei Polytechnic University as an economics major and has become a “granny grade college student”. Li Shanjiao, a 98-year-old retired teacher who lives in Guangming Village, Pengjie Township, Luqiao District, Taizhou City, Zhejiang Province, has been studying at the township’s TV University for the Elderly for 10 years. 81-year-old Wang Xia, who lives in Nanjing, took part in the national entrance exam for the tenth time.

More and more elderly people have undergone “an awakening of individualism” that reminds them of the importance of leading a quality life in their latter years. In Shanghai, as young people travel to faraway places during the long “May First” or “October First” holidays, many elderly people choose to spend these holidays in fitness centers. The dance and gymnastics classes of some fitness centers almost become a world of the elderly. Those who like playing in the water go to swimming centers, where they take long, leisurely walks in the pool, experimenting with the “water regimen”.

Some elderly people move into modern apartments or rent cabins in the mountains. At the foot of Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang Province, a good number of elderly people from Shanghai live in little houses built by local villagers. In this mountain village where sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard all around, they lead a happy retired life away from home, fishing and climbing mountains — all this despite the fact that, in the bottom of their hearts, they often miss their children and grandchildren, as well as the familiar sounds from the produce market near their old homes.

elderly china

Society in transformation and “empty nest”

Not all old folks can be as passionate about their life as Grandma Wu is. Uncle Zhang, who lives in Beijing, rides a bus every day from one end to the other and then back, in order to ease his loneliness.

A report by the China Research Center on Aging shows that, in central parts of large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as many as 70% of the homes are empty nests (homes where only the old people remain). Of China’s urban population, almost half of the elderly live separate from their children. In those rural areas where large numbers of people leave their homes to find work elsewhere, the problem of the empty nest may be even worse.

“Empty nest”, a new term that has been created as the rapid transformation of the Chinese society, has caused traditional big families to be replaced by small or even nuclear families.

“Empty nest”, a new term that has been created as the rapid transformation of the Chinese society, has caused traditional big families to be replaced by small or even nuclear families. In 1980, woman writer Bing Xin wrote a short novel entitled Empty Nest. Many Chinese readers shed tears of sorrow for the lonely old Chinese American couple in this story whose children had all moved out to form families of their own. At that time, the Chinese society was still one in which people enjoyed the happiness of family union and raised children in hopes of depending on them in the future. Today, however, empty nest is a common condition of life for many elderly Chinese. Loneliness of the soul is the biggest problem facing the elderly living in empty nests.

Guo Ping, a Chinese expert on the science of aging, says that the ubiquity of “empty-nest elderly” is a result of the changes in people’s living environments, the transformation from “big families” to “small families”, and the unprecedented depth and breadth of the migrations of people. This, of course, happens in all countries where there is development.

elderly china

However, China has always been a country where the well-being of the elderly depends on family. “Of all the hundred virtues, filial piety comes first” – Chinese civilization holds “filial piety” as a guiding principle of life and code of conduct. Confucius said: “You should not go on a long journey when your parents are still alive. If you have to do so, you must have good reasons.” In the Analects, Confucius also put forward the concept of “countenance filial piety” (that children and grandchildren should provide for their elders not only with material support but also with spiritual comfort). This had a profound impact on later generations. Throughout the three dynasties before Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the state was “ruled based on filial piety”. Fang Xuanling, a Tang Dynasty (618- 907) chancellor, was famous for his filial piety. When his stepmother was ill, he invited a doctor to his house to treat her, with tears in his eyes and with the most solemn of ceremonies. The death of his stepmother made him so sad that he had no desire for food and drink. Those who did not provide for their elders were severely punished by state laws. Nowadays, the Double Ninth Day (ninth day of the ninth lunar month) has become a festival for the elderly, a day to honor, respect, love and help them. Every year on this day, autumn excursions are organized for the elderly in which young people join to support the elderly with their hand.

We have officially entered an age of 4-2-1 (4 elderly people, 2 middle-aged people and 1 child). Because an only child usually finds it impossible to strike a balance between a career and the need to take care of multiple elders, old-age care as a familial duty is gradually weakening. In a country that has long subscribed to the philosophy that “one raises children in the hope of depending on them in the future”, modern people’s changing ideas and ways of living will make it the only practical choice for many families to send their elders to nursing homes.

elderly china

The Challenge of “aging before affluence”

An official from China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs said, “China is running toward an aged society at a speed exceeding our expectations.” In contrast to this “entry by running”, the society is not yet prepared to deal with its aging. China entered an aged society when its GDP per capita had just exceeded 1,000 U.S. dollars. Most developed countries entered an aging society when their GDP per capita reached 5,000-10,000 U.S. dollars, but China is a typical case of “aging before affluence”. According to an analysis by World Bank, from 2015, the vast Chinese generation of post-World-War-II baby boomers will enter their old age years. China will be facing a tremendous challenge.

China is running toward an aged society at a speed exceeding our expectations.” In contrast to this “entry by running. China will be facing a tremendous challenge.

The pressures that China faces come from three directions. First, the pressure on pension security is great. By 2020 the number of retirees receiving pension payments will exceed 100 million, which means that the support-dependence ratio will reach 2.5:1. Second, the pressure on healthcare is high. Last, there is a huge shortage of nursing services. There is an increasing need for China’s elderly to move into nursing institutions, yet services for the elderly are in serious shortage. The situation is even more severe in rural areas, where, as the newly emerged rural social pension insurance is inadequate, finding a solution to the pension problem will be a long-term task.

A survey conducted among a large number of elderly people living in Beijing asked them about their preferred way of spending their latter years. Most respondents said they did not want to be burdens for their children; next was the number of respondents who said they would try to ease their children’s burdens; 6% of them replied that they intended to move into a nursing home when they found it impossible to take care of themselves.

Yi Mi, a fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of the Science on Aging, says that, in order to build an effective Chinese system of social security for the aged, we should improve community services, build day-care centers for the elderly, thus making it possible for our elders to receive comprehensive care without having to leave the family. This realization, he says, is based on the knowledge of what Western countries have gone through: they built a lot of nursing homes but eventually found it better to return to family and community.

It is estimated that, by 2014, China’s aged population will reach 200 million, or 1 elderly person in every 7 Chinese. In cities including Beijing and Shanghai, this ratio will be 1:5. According to another estimate, by 2030 empty nest homes will reach 90%. In the next 20 years, China will go through severe challenges in developing a national system of welfare and security for the aged.

elderly china
Some aged women kicking shuttlecock in a park.

“Granny Van Gogh”— Popular Figure on the Internet

“Granny Van Gogh,” is an elderly amateur artist named Chang Xiufeng. She began painting in her 70s. She does not know how to use a computer, let alone the Internet. But her painting blog caught on within a few months. Chang paints of by-gone ages and villages in her memory with brushes; she depicts flowers, animals, trees, fields and old houses with bright colors. Her paintings, with a strong pastoral characteristic, rekindle nostalgic sentiment in viewers. For that reason, she was nicknamed “Granny Van Gogh” or “China’s rural Van Gogh.” Now, crayons and water colors have become close companions of this elderly lady. She has completed more that 100 art works in the past three years.

One of Famous Chinese Longevity Towns — Bama

Bama is the only one of the five most famous longevity towns, where so many people live so longer. The secret of longevity in Bama is the clean air and healthy diet. Cannabis sativa, corn and white potatoes, the main food in the local diet, are high in unsaturated fatty acid and rich in trace elements. Experts say this is the key point of the secret of Bama’s longevity.

elderly in china
Apartments designed specially for the aged are welcome among quite some urban elderly.

Confucius Institute 10

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 10. Volume V. September 2010.
View the print issue in PDF

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