Old men behaving badly: What's up with China's senior citizens?

Old men behaving badly: What's up with China's senior citizens?

In The Analects, the Chinese sage Confucius includes an anecdote in which he rebukes a mature student, Yuan Rang. “When you were young, you didn’t value the moral of filial piety,” ‘Kong Fuzi,’ as he is known in Chinese, scolds Yuan. 

“Then when you grew up, you didn’t achieve anything. But now as an old man, you’re still shamelessly living. You are such an annoying pest!” Harsh words, perhaps, but this dialectic philosophy reflects the traditional relationship between young and old in China. In Confucian culture, seniors are respected, but on the condition that they meet requirements of widom and morality. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and so the road to respectability begins with years of learning, without which one might be cursed as an ‘undead creature,’ a traditional curse directed at burdensome geriatrics. Even in China, gray hair and wrinkles are no license to impunity. 

“Although it came with high expectations, generally, respect has always been given to Chinese seniors,” says Professor Chang Yaohua of the Beijing International Studies University (BISU). “They were regarded as a caste of better-mannered people with high moral principles, in harmony with the cultural system.” 

In recent months, though, China’s post-70 year olds have replaced so-called ‘1980s and 90s generations’ as the subject of several hand-wringing editorials about the state of society. In Jiangsu province, cars in a residential compound received fly-posters warning owners not to park on “the vitally important dancing area,” which was a public space. When residents objected, the ayis (‘aunties’) behind the campaign suggested neighbors “install sound-proof glass,” complaining, “Why can’t young people get up early?”

A Changsha woman who confronted a group that was disturbing her 90-year-old mother recived short thrift. “They were very rude and came towards me, surrounding me,” she told The Guardian. Now long-running anger against elderly troupes is turning to action. Students in Tangshan, forced into a silent protest against the dancers near their classroom, were dubbed “mischievous” by the pensioners. Residents in Chengdu threw water bombs; in Wuhan and Changsha, troupes were spattered with excrement. One Beijinger took things further in November, firing a shotgun in protest; he was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm.

Dance troupes are the tip of the iceberg. In November, one 70-year-old Hebei man shouted at a girl who failed to offer him her seat, calling her “ill-bred” – then sat on her legs. Meanwhile in Gansu, a zealous cop held an elderly woman at gunpoint in January, after octogenarian fruit-pickers descended on a truck that had spilled its cargo. 

And then there are the tales of older people extorting money through insurance scams or by blackmailing Good Samaritans. In the most recent example, 46-year-old father Wu Weiqing is alleged to have committed suicide in Guangdong, after the elderly road-traffic victim he stopped to assist later demanded a huge sum of money in compensation. If Wu hoped his death might spark a soul-searching nationwide debate, though, he was sadly mistaken. Yet as Phoenix TV put it in a special report: ‘Are China’s Elderly Disrespectful?’ 

In the minds of some, the fault lies with Reform and Opening Up: according to them, the turbulent Mao period was one of equality – where everyone was equally poor – and seniors were ‘honorable.’ Economic reform resulted in a society that was more complicated (‘chaotic’) that saw innocence corrupted by ‘hooliganism,’ exemplified by the country’s first Criminal Law in 1979.  

“In terms of ideology and thinking, China is back to the time of the Warring States [a pluralistic period with multiple kingdoms and schools of thoughts],” claims Professor Chang. “Chinese tradition has been broken up since 1919 and the May 4 movement, along with subsequent movements, but the impact reaches up until today.”

But a series on ifeng.com has a different idea. “Most of the elderly’s flaws come from their education, when they were at the most crucial stage for forming character and sensibility,” the anonymous author argues. “[Reform] and the ensuing social changes came after, when they already had a stable identity.”

The articles use “deficient” to describe people born before 1949, and makes few allowances for their circumstances of their upbringing, such as the Anti-Rightist purges, Great Leap Forward, 100 Flowers campaign and the Cultural Revolution. Scarce resources, at a time when the state bred deep mistrust of others, led to habits such as materialism and hoarding. 

To survive in a time when the old morality system was smashed, any means were adopted. As writer Gao Wangling noted in his 2006 rural treatise Investigation of Chinese Peasants’ “Reactionary Action” During The People’s Commune Period [1958-1980], “Those who don’t steal, won’t last.” 

“They are the generation that grew up drinking wolf milk, educated by the law of the jungle,” ifeng.com observes. “Their rule was those who are stronger and more powerful get everything. There were no constraints or bottom lines in a time when people can beat their teachers and report their parents.” The articles deplore these generations’ lack of spiritualism. “They don’t know how to discuss and negotiate. And intellectually, classic books, literature, poems, music and manners were ruled out in their schooling, which made them ignorant and rude.”

“It is not that the old people got bad,” is the damning conclusion. “The bad people got old.”

Zhang Mishu is 73 but doesnt think todays generation of elderly is anything special. ”Yes, we went through some ‘special’ periods but I don’t think the impact is on individuals’ daily behavior,” Zhang says. “It is more on the country’s political aspects.”

Beijing-based psychologist Dr. Wei Guangdong disagrees, saying teenage experience can have a lifelong effect on personality. “It is like a shadow that people can’t escape,” Dr. Wei explains. “It has a life-long effect – people become who they are from society more than their parents.” He says it is irresponsible to call China’s seniors ‘bad’ people. 

“Old people are at a special crossroads in life, a period of loss. Physical ability, career positions, social and family roles all present a downward turn”, says Dr. Wei. “The changes are followed by negative attitudes, psychological imbalances, mood swings, anxiety and even anger.”

This dichotomy – the old got bad; the bad got old – is “the classic style of Chinese criticism,” says Chen Fang, a critic at the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily. “In China, one generation likes to judge another. When the [balinghou, post-80s] were given labels, like ‘unreliable’ and ‘selfish,’ it seemed China had no future. Today they are the backbone of society... But now that they have the power of discourse, the balinghou turn it back on those who once judged them.” 

Chen says young people should be careful in their criticism. “Youngsters know how to use the Internet to make a sensation but their ‘enemy’, the seniors, have no ability to defend themselves online,” Chen warns. “Putting on labels is dangerous. It could be another Cultural Revolution, this time online.”

BISU’s Professor Chang went through the same years of madness as his peers. “But I think it is too subjective to say they are a generation of bad people,” he argues. “Experiencing it made people think and learn to regret. And even during those years, there were always good people who kept their moral compass.”

Pensioner Zhang agrees. “Incidents [like the spat over a bus seat] could happen any time. It happened in the past and I’m sure it will also happen in the future,” he argues. “Is it something young people should be proud of, if they are sitting on a bus while seniors are standing beside them?”

Last year, Chen Xiaolu, son of the late Marshal Chen Yi, apologized for Cultural Revolution “misdeeds,” while in January, general’s daughter Song Binbin, an infamous Red Guard, publicly expressed remorse at a speech at Beijing Normal University. These ‘confessions’ carry considerable moral weight, though not as much as an official apology. (“[Reform was] a complete and firm denial,” the Global Times argued in January. “The nationwide introspection of the 1980s is more constructive than a so-called apology.”)

The media’s focus on blame is unhelpful, argues Professor Chang.  “It confirms the classic journalism principle – ‘dog bites man’ isn’t news but ‘man bites dog’ is,” he says. “People have expectations about seniors; they like to think that vulnerable groups only consist of kind people [but] that is just what people want to believe… Bad people are bad people, of all ages.”

“The current generation experienced all the turbulences and tragedies of modern China. Their lack of material and spiritual cultivation led to a failure of moral standards,” argues Chen Fang. 

“When [old people] dance in public, they don’t care if their behavior bothers others. When they see young people not give up their seats, they choose to use violence. But if these ayis had more space for activities, would they still bother people? If people on the bus were always kind to the old, would their ‘evil’ side be aroused?” Chen believes Chinese society is doomed to grow old before it grows rich and therefore, there will be more conflicts of this type.

In February 2013, the China National Committee on Aging reported that, in 2012, China’s over-60s population reached 194 million, and will pass 200 million by the end of 2014. This pressure on limited social resources will deepen clashes between old and young. Be prepared, then, for the age of the grumpy old man.

[Image via Flickr]

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