Sincronía Summer 2003

‘Active Ageing’ and China: A Critical Excursion

Professor Ian Cook, Professor of Human Geography, Liverpool John Moores University, UK

Dr. Jason L. Powell, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK



Historically, Chinese society placed the elderly people on a pedestal. It was part of the filial duties imposed by Confucianism to care for one’s parents when they were old. Today, however, that old order in China is breaking down, at the very time that the proportion of the elderly is increasing as the ‘superaging’ of the population takes place. When coupled with the decrease in births associated with the People’s Republic Single Child Family Programme, plus the lack of a developed welfare system, the increased number of the elderly is giving rise to serious concerns among Chinese policy makers. While not seeking to minimise the issues concerning the frail elderly, this paper presents a different ‘take’ on aging, focusing on the ‘active elderly’. Via dispelling the stereotypes of the elderly, an alternative discourse is possible, in which the elderly are viewed as a resource, not as a problem. This has implications for the epistemological development of gerontology. We seek to ground the which highlights shifting discourses and stories about aging that can be told.

Keywords: China; Narrativity; Superaging; Single Child Family Programme; Confucianism



To understand older people and the relationship to the Chinese State, we must recognise that the historical meaning of old age changes in response to a wide variety of social, economic, political, cultural and inter-personal conditions. Social policies are both an attempt to shape and is itself shaped by these meanings. In the United Kingdom, for example, much politicking has surrounded older people, including controversies over pensions, care and proposed legal reforms concerning employment. In western societies, older people have been viewed in "burden" and "dependent" terms. Conversely, pre-modern or traditional Chinese society placed elderly people on a pedestal (Cook, 2001). They were valued for their accumulated knowledge, their position within the extended family, and the sense of history and identity which they helped the family to develop (Murray, 1998). Respect for elderly people was an integral part of Confucian doctrine, especially for the family patriarch:

‘The mixed love, fear and awe of the children for their father was strengthened by the great respect paid to age. An old man’s loss of vigour was more than offset by his growth in wisdom. As long as he remained in possession of his faculties the patriarch possessed every sanction to enable him to dominate the family scene. He could even sell his children into slavery’ (Fairbank, 1959, in Schurmann and Schell (eds), 1967, p. 36).

And for the old woman, it was only through age that she could have a ‘measure of equality’ in this heavily gendered patrilineal society, albeit via her sons (Baker, 1979).

It was part of the filial duties imposed by Confucianism to care for one’s parents when they were old, so that when you too were old your children would in turn care for you. Reciprocity was a key feature, however, for sons and fathers, mothers and daughters had rights as well as responsibilities. But today, in the ‘new’ China, that old order in China is breaking down, as Powell and Cook (2000), for example, have shown due to the dramatic changes that the People’s Republic has witnessed in recent decades. There is, for example, increased migration to cities of younger people, leaving the elderly as a ‘residual’ population in rural areas, and dislocating, literally and figuratively, the traditional links between generations. Also, increased prosperity and good health care has markedly increased average lifespan, from 47.1 years in 1960 to 68.6 years in 1993 (Tang, 1999). Life expectancy at birth reached an estimated 69.0 years for males and 73.0 years for females by the year 2000 (Britannica Book of the Year, 2001).

Not only are people living longer, but they are doing so concurrently with the decrease in births associated with the People’s Republic of China (henceforth PRC) Single Child Family Programme (SCFP). Du and Tu (2000) identify four ‘unique characteristics’ of China’s population aging:

Unprecedented speed: the proportion of the elderly is growing faster than Japan, the country previously recognised as having the fastest rate, and much faster than nations in Western Europe for example.

Early arrival of an aging population: before modernization has fully taken place, with its welfare implications. ‘It is certain that China will face a severely aged population before it has sufficient time and resources to establish an adequate social security and service system for the elderly’ (ibid, p. 79).

Fluctuations in the total dependency ratio: Chinese estimates are that the country will reach a higher ‘dependent burden’ earlier in the twenty-first century than was previously forecast.

Strong influence of the government’s fertility policy and its implementation on the aging process: the SCFP means fewer children being born, but with more elderly people a conflict arises between the objectives to limit population increase and yet maintain a balanced age structure.

The combination of such factors means that the increased number of the elderly is giving rise to serious concerns among Chinese policy makers.


Active Aging in China I : Politics, Power and Representations of Old Age in CCP

For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which rules China, the view of the elderly has been highly variable, and sometimes contradictory. For much of the time the Party has viewed the elderly essentially as dependants, to be looked after by work unit or family as the case may be. And yet within the Party hierarchy, the elderly assumed a major role, either within its formal structures such as the Politburo, or when ostensibly retired from these organisations informally via more shadowy ‘advisory’ bodies which retain great power. And so the CCP itself has a tradition of elderly active within its power structures, and its great leaders, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, worked to a very great age, into their eighties. Two examples illustrate this point.

Firstly, there is Mao’s activities during the mid-1960s. Born in 1893 he was by then in semi-retirement, partly shunted aside by the CCP after the failures of the Great Leap Forward. In 1965 he orchestrated a spectacular propaganda coup by swimming in the Yangtze River at the venerable age of 72, accompanied by photographers in motor launches. Where he swam, off Wuhan, the river is nearly two miles wide, and beset by difficult currents. Mao, however, was always a strong swimmer. Moreover, provided the swimmer follows the current downstream, at an angle to the river, and swims in the warm summer waters great distance can be achieved. The impact on China, and indeed overseas opinion, was startling. For home consumption, ‘this exercise at such a place was no doubt partly designed to refute the fears and superstitions of the people who still dreaded the ‘River Dragon’, which devours swimmers’ (Fitzgerald, 1976, p. 138). Mao built on this success to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution the following year, having reconfirmed his cult status.

In less dramatic, but no less important vein, was the role of Deng Xiaoping and others of the ‘eight elders’ during Tiananmen in 1989. Born in 1904, Deng was thus 85 at this time, and some of the other elders were even older. They came together to express their concerns over what they viewed as too soft a response by the Politburo Standing Committee to the ongoing student protest in the Square. They still had power, and used it firstly on May 18th to meet with the Standing Committee (minus Zhao Ziyang, then General Secretary of the CCP and a noted reformer, known to be sympathetic to many of the views held by the students) and the leaders of the key Central Military Commission to order that Beijing be put under martial law. Zhao Ziyang was ousted, and on May 21st ‘Deng Xiaoping convened the Party Elders to take charge since the younger generation of leaders seemed unable to manage’ (Nathan and Link, 2001, p. 223). They agreed Jiang Zemin, the current leader of the PRC, as the replacement for Zhao Ziyang at a meeting on May 27th. Finally, on June 2nd, the fateful decision was taken to clear the Square by force, and on June 4th 1989, the terrible die was cast at Tiananmen, despite Deng Xiaoping’s instructions to avoid bloodshed in the Square itself.

Deng Xiaoping’s image in the West as a small ‘cuddly uncle’ who wore ten-gallon hats during his visits to the USA and was behind the reform period in China, was transformed to the ‘Butcher of Beijing’ for his part in Tiananmen. However he revived his tainted reputation as far as the West was concerned, or at least Western businessmen, via his famous South China tour in 1992 at an even more advanced age (Cook and Murray, 2001). During this tour, allegedly under armed guard, Deng courageously backed further opening up in China, and this gave the green light to a massive foreign investment in the country, to a ‘China Fever’ which led to Deng Xiaoping becoming Time’s ‘Man of the Year’ accolade in 1992. By then he was 87, and remained in remarkably rude health given that he was well-known as a chain smoker right up to his death at the age of 93 in February 1997. The CCP contains, therefore, a tradition of service and work to an advanced age, and Jian Zemin himself is still in charge despite himself being a septuagenarian.


Active Aging in China II: The Aging Population

Traditionally, the elderly may have been ‘placed on a pedestal’ as noted previously, but the lack of any welfare system in traditional Chinese peasant society meant that many elderly had to keep farming the land, regardless of their age. Image 1, taken from a book first published in 1927, shows an aged Chinese farmer in his warm winter garb. He uses a staff, his beard is white and his forehead is etched with lines, but he stands erect and still maintains an air of vigour. Even after more than 50 years of communism, for the elderly in the countryside ‘Generally physically stronger than their counterparts in the cities and accustomed to doing physical work , many continue to live on their own earnings by doing what they can’ (Yu, 1987, p. 210). Official data in the 1990s shows that 26% of old people in rural areas still depend on their own labor earnings compared to only 7% in towns and cities (Sun 1996), therefore the tradition of the active elderly in rural areas continues.

In the cities, the elderly are less likely to be active via labor; instead they are often active via exercise. Images x-y illustrate different aspects of this.

Other images: exercises at old people’s home, Guangdong province



martial arts exercises, HK and B’ng

jiaxi B’ng

dancing, B’ng

Many of these images are a testament to the spirit and initiative of the old people themselves. Some will have been guided by government policies introduced in the reform era, as the following quote makes clear. We have quoted this source at length for to us it shows the scope for improved policies towards the elderly, not just in China itself:

‘Physical exercise is particularly important to the well-being of elderly persons. China has a national sports association for the aged, with many local branches. More than 10 million senior citizens do traditional Chinese exercises such as taijiquan (shadow boxing) and qigong (deep breathing exercises). In Beijing alone there are some 200 practice grounds in parks, public squares, roadside gardens and other open spaces where volunteers teach these exercises every morning. So far more than 400,000 persons, many of them old people, have taken advantage of these free lessons. Some senior citizens take part in long-distance jogging, ball games or swimming, and senior citizens’ sports meets have been held in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities.

Less arduous forms of recreation abound as well. In Beijing, for example, there is an army veterans’ chorus. Anothr group of veterans has just published a collection of poems. Clubs, parks, activity rooms and homes for the aged are being established in many cities....

Other retirees are active in neighborhood committees, giving a hand with such civic duties as helping children with educational activities, mediating disputes, helping with traffic control, doing welfare work, and serving the neighborhood in various ways. The elderly in the countryside are also doing what they can for their homes and community, such as offering technical advice based on their long years of farming experience’ (Yu, 1987, op.cit., pp. 212-3).



In researching this paper, we found that Todd Petersen, chief executive of Help the Aged International (HAI), had used the opportunity of the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference of HAI held in Beijing during July 2001 to make the same point as the thrust of this article. He called for governments across the world to regard ‘their burgeoning aging populations as "invisible reources" instead of viewing the elderly as unwitting victims of poverty, disease and social exclusion’ (Tang, 2001a). He noted in his speech that many people view the elderly as a problem rather than as a resource. Many elderly people for example, continue to be major income providers for their families, or act as care givers for others. He called, therefore, for governments to fully credit the social contributions of the elderly via new social development measures. We fully support this perspective on the elderly. Via moving away from a broad-brush categorisation of the elderly as a ‘frail’, ‘severely disabled’ or ‘incapacitated’ group, this enables a more sensitive interaction with elderly people. Ideally, policy responses would move towards interacting with older people as individuals, genuinely empowered to lead fulfilling lives which are as active as possible.

Within, the People’s Republic of China there are genuine concerns to improve the wellbeing of the elderly, as shown in the latest five-year plan for example as well as a range of recent measures to improve the profile of the elderly and the attention paid to them (Guo, 2001;Tang 2001b; Zeng 2001). The increased longevity points to the progress already made within the country. We would argue that, as far as possible, policies should build on those introduced in the 1980s to encourage physical and more gentle exercise of the type illustrated above by Yu. There should also be a renewal of the ancient system of respect for the elderly, albeit without the fear or deference which was often found in traditional society. To value the elderly, and to involve them wherever possible, and to view them as a resource rather than a problem would seem to us the way forward, in China and elsewhere. Hence, We are also sensitised to the concept of living with multiple narratives that impinges on viewing old age in many dimensions.

Aging in China: Living with Multiple Narratives

Each phase of Chinese society and active aging leaves a legacy. Moreover, policy development is uneven and subject to local emphasis and elision, which means that it is quite possible for different, even conflicting narratives of later life to coexist in different parts of the policy system within China. Each period generates a discourse that can legitimate the lives of older people in particular ways, and as their influence accrues, create the potential of entering into multiple narrative streams (ie, as political leaders and as a population.

Also, both policy discourses share a deep coherence, which may help to explain their co-existence. Such narrative streams offer a partial view of aging whilst downloading risk and responsibility onto aging identities.

If the analysis outlined above is accepted, then it is possible to see contemporary Chinese society addressing diverse aspects of older people in differing and contradictory ways. Contradictory narratives for active aging in a landscape that is a one and the same time increasingly blurred in terms of roles and relationships and split-off in terms of narrative coherence and consequences for aging identity. Indeed in a future of complex and multiple policy agendas, it would appear that a narrative of social inclusion through active aging can coexist with one emphasising carer obligation and state surveillance (Powell and Cook, 2000). Such a co-existence may occasionally become inconvenient at the level of public rhetoric. However, at an experiential and ontological level, that is to say at the level of the daily lives of older adults the implications may become particularly acute. Multiple co-existing policy narratives may become a significant source of risk to identity maintenance within the ageing identities in China.

One has to imagine a situation in which later lives are lived, skating on a surface of legitimising discourse. For everyday intents and purposes this surface supplies the ground on which one can build an ageing identity, relate to other family members and immediate community. However, there is always the possibility of slipping, of being subject to trauma or transition. Serious slippage will provoke being thrown onto a terrain that had previously been hidden, an alternative narrative of ageing with entirely different premises, relationship expectations and possibilities for personal expression.

Policy narratives, however, are also continually breaking down and fail to achieve hegemony as they encounter lived experience. Indeed, it could be argued that a continuous process of re-constitution takes place via the play of competing narratives. When we are addressing the issue of older people’s identity in later life we can usefully note Foucault’s (1977) contention that there has been a growth in attempts to control national populations through discourses of normality, but at the same time this has entailed increasing possibilities for self-government; another way of contextualising "active aging" (Powell and Cook 2001).

Part of the attractiveness of thinking in terms of narrative, that populational policies tell us stories that we don’t have necessarily to believe, is the opening of a critical distance between description and intention. Policy narratives describe certain, often idealised, states of affairs. Depicting them as stories, rather than realities, allows the interrogation of the space between that description and experience.

Concluding Comments.

What does this examination of discourse and everyday narratives of aging tell us about China and constructions of identity, and what are the lessons for future applied research?

Firstly, we are alerted to the partial nature of the narratives supplied by policy in China, which affects perceptions of older people. The simplifying role of policy discourse tends to highlight certain, politically valued, aspects of experience to the exclusion of other possibilities. These are also the discourses most likely to be reflected in Chinese state policy- sponsored research.

Secondly, the inclusion of certain roles, activities and age bands in populational policy discourse in China has a legitimising role. In other words, it not only sanctions the direction of resources and the action of state professionals important though that is. It also contributes to the legitimated identities afforded to people in later life. This includes at least two factors key to aging identity: the creation of social spaces in which to perform aging roles and be recognised as such, and, the supply of material with which explicit yet personal narratives of self can be made.

Thirdly, a significant element in the ‘riskiness’ of building aging identities under contemporary conditions may arise from the existence of multiple policy discourses that personal narratives, of self, the Chinese State and relations between the two, have to negotiate. Research on the management of identity, should, then, be sensitised to the multiple grounds on which identity might be built and the potential sources of conflict and uncertainty may bring.

Fourthly, attention should be paid to the relationship between tacit and explicit influences on identity management in later-life in China. The multiple sources for building stories ‘to live by’ and the tension between legitimising discourses and alternative narratives of self and family, would suggest that identities are managed at different levels, for different audiences and at different levels of awareness. There are implications here for both the conceptualisation of old age and policy relations and for the practice of research.

In Summary, we have argued that future developments in policy analysis in China will have to take both tacit and explicit themes in populational policy into account as relates elderly people. They will also have to more closely examine the relationship between personal story-making and formal public policy discourses in China. Policies provide narrative templates within which certain categories of person or group, are encouraged to live out their lives. However, this legitimised performance may differ significantly from an individuals or groups everyday experience of that same role, function, or social space, leading to conflict between different levels of narrative. We are left in the end with a question: how far will it be possible for ageing families to use opportunities for positive growth and resistance.




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Note: All China Daily references from their website, http//

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