A Snapshot of Ageism in China

This post is by Florence Shen, a student at Colgate University who is interning this summer with the Gray Panthers, NYC Network. 

Since the New Culture Movement in the early twentieth century, the influence of Confucianism, which emphasized compassion, ritual, and duty, has been declining in China. Among the trend, senior members of the family gradually lost their authority, and individual freedom was emphasized. Traditional culture was further attacked during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Then came the Chinese economic reform, which resulted in people’s participation in the market and the increasing communication and cooperation with western countries. Both changes led to growing individualism in China, with the decreasing importance of and respect for the elderly in the family and the society. 

Additionally, with the enactment of the one-child policy in 1980, a new family structure consisting of one child, two parents and four grandparents emerged, and is still the most prevalent form in China today. Children become the core of families, and the rights and welfare of the elderly are more likely to be marginalized. From a broader perspective, economic development and ensuring the sole governance of the Communist Party of China have been national priorities throughout the recent decades. The rapid growth of capitalism has reversed traditional priorities, in which the respect for senior officers, aristocracy and the elderly was among the most important moral obligations of Chinese people. Nowadays business is often a higher priority than morality; the elderly, who often lack the ability to pursue profits in the way that younger people do, are naturally at the mercy of the increasingly capitalist society. As little attention has been diverted to the expanding aging populace at both the individual and the national level, ageism now takes many forms in China. 

For example, many travel agencies reject customers above seventy or eighty if there are no younger people accompanying them, regardless how healthy they are. My grandparents, who love to travel but are usually not able to travel by themselves, are therefore under time pressure. They sometimes quarrel with each other, because one wants to see as many places as possible before they become unqualified, but the other prefers to have long and good rests between trips.

Besides institutional discrimination, there is also individual mistreatment of aging people, especially in the less developed areas. I have heard about people in their thirties or forties not willing to let their parent remarry after his or her spouse’s death. These middle-aged people disregard older people’s rights to pursue love and happiness by forming their own families, often with the purpose of making use of their parents’ financial resources and labor to help raise their own children.

There are more implicit phenomena of ageism. Language with an impolite or contemptuous tone is commonly used to describe senior citizens today. For example, when young people use the words “lao tai po” and “lao tou zi” to refer to older women and men, respectively, they are often implying the uselessness or annoyingness of the elderly. This phenomenon is contrary to the Chinese tradition, in which aging was widely respected and appreciated. For instance, the age of fifties was also called “zhi ming”, which literally means the ability to understand the limitations of human beings in leading their own lives; the age of sixties was called “er shun”, which means the ability to accept diverse ideas.

Because ageism is not a well-known concept in China, it is sometimes practiced unintentionally. When a new restaurant opened in my hometown last year, it offered widely different discount rates to people born in different time periods. As a result, teenagers only paid about half of what their grandparents had to pay, and the Millennials also enjoyed fairly good pricing. One can interpret this instance as the new restaurant trying to draw young customers, but imagine a restaurant in the U.S. charging differently based on race, with the intention to attract one particular racial group. What consequences would this practice lead to? 

I have been thinking about my potential role in realizing social and economic justice after going on a social innovation trip in New York this spring. I look forward to integrating my invaluable experience at Gray Panthers this summer with the sociology courses I will take at Colgate, and applying them in the Chinese context. I hope to familiarize Chinese people with the rights of the elderly and the critical effects of ageism on this rapidly aging population, and find a distinctively Chinese rationale and methodology to combat ageism. 

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