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An Aging China

21 October 2007

Lunar September 9, October 19, is China’s traditional Double Nine Festival which is an occasion to celebrate longevity and pay respect to one‘s aging parents as well as all senior citizens in the community. In recent years, the festival draws a lot of public attention and debate, which is because China is transforming into an aging society at a pace matchable to its miraculous economic growth; and which is also because the issue is so closely associated to the sensitive One-Child Policy.

Living to ripe age is traditionally viewed in China as one of the four top blessings in life, which is like a season after harvest, a time to leisurely enjoy the fruit of the previous hard work.

But mirroring the dismal trend in the West, in today’s China, families are rapidly breaking down, with children and old people bearing the heaviest blunt of the suffering. According to a survey in Gansu (甘肃), one of China's most old-fashioned provinces, in both urban and rural areas, more than half of young people questioned said they would like to move their aging parents to nursing homes instead of living under one roof and attending their needs personally.

If this is the attitudes of the young people in conservative Gansu, imagine what the situation would be like in the coastal metropolitans like Shanghai and Guangzhou. There are a lot of complaints heard that Chinese youth today become as self-centred as their Western counterparts, which might be true. But on the other hand, for the young Chinese with a Han ethnic background, there are practical issues derived from the One-Child Policy that they have to face. In the old days, each aging couple usually brought up several offspring, and grown-up children could share the burdens of looking after their aging parents, without mentioning the fact that by then the women normally remained at home as full-time houseworkers. In contrast to that, each of today’s young couple formed by only-childs have to look after four aging parents while working full-time, in order to be able to financially support themselves and their kid.

According to some sources, currently there are 145 million Chinese aged 60 or over, that is about 11 percent of the total population in China. And among the 145 million, there are only 40 million elderlies living in the cities covered under the old-age pension system; in other words, around 63 percent of old Chinese, majority of them in the rural area, have to rely on their children to provide them with basic financial support. And if that fall short, for one reason or other, they are more or less doomed.

The situation wasn't always so bad. As some Chinese researchers pointed out, thousands years of family security system based on an unique finial culture has not only nurtured a large nation but a relatively harmonious civilisation in which the most vulnerable, the young and the old, were well looked after. However, this system has been crushed into pieces under the weight of the Westernisation and the One-Child Policy, yet a Western-style social security structure is yet to be formulated. As the result, a large number of old people are being left alone struggling for survival in the gap between the old and new arrangements. Which is just one of the numerous examples of how forced conversion into the Western way of thinking and living, sometimes due to the self-interested demands of and pressure from the West, hurt Chinese system and people terribly.

Shanghai, the biggest metropolitan in China, is the first Chinese city entering the aging society with one in every five residents there are said to be "senior citizens". Comparing to the old people living in other parts of China, the old Shanghainese should count themselves extremely lucky. The majority of the retired workers in Shanghai have their regular pension payments at an amount ranging from several hundred yuans to thousands, and are generally covered under a basic healthcare system, with reasonably equipped health service centres (社区卫生服务中心) in most urban residential areas offering very cheap and sometimes free medical services. The governments in Shanghai also have done their best to provide settings and services to encourage old people to get together and stay active.

Singing is viewed by many retired Shanghainese as both a way of entertainment and a form of audio qigong; and thus they walk into parks daily and stop when passing a group amusing themselves by singing and add their own voice to the tuneful sound that constantly turn Shanghai parks into open theatres.

The singers

The orchestra

Still some elderly people prefer to execute their daily exercise in a quiet yet more cultured manner through calligraphy - a fitness and longevity technique highly recommended by Chinese medicine doctors. This respectable old gentleman shown in the pic writes his poems on the ground with plain water. When he finishes the last character of his verse, the first one has already dried out and disappeared. So he writes again, and writes a new poem. What he’s doing is clearly more than just a physical exercise, but a spiritual training - working on the process of detachment.

Observing hills, rivers and the world,
Appreciating wine, tea and the life.

A poem written on the ground in a park with water by the old gentleman


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