How Communism And Capitalism Destroyed Traditional Chinese Elder Care

'Filial Piety,' in which children were responsible for caring for the aged, was China's ancient and efficient retirement system. Modern forces have slowly dismantled it over the past half-century.

Old friends, like bookends...
Old friends, like bookends...
Betty Ng

BEIJING — For thousands of years in China, elderly care was “privatized,” invisibly regulated by the traditional ethics of filial piety. But starting in the 1950s, along with other life events such as marriage and having children, retirement began to be “collectivized” and “publicly owned,” decided by the state.

And now, over the last few years, China has started market reforms that may bring in another sweeping change that could leave elderly care caught in a dilemma of privatization or public duty. The best solution may in fact be a combination of the two systems. But just how can this be achieved?

Humans lack an innate ability of self-reliance. Compared with other species, a human being requires very long periods of nurture, growth and development. Thus, parenting implies naturally assuming a long responsibility until offspring are able to survive independently.

Yet there is no real obligation in the other direction. Every individual’s arrival in this world is a passive result, not a free choice. From a biological point of view, children bear no responsibility for supporting their parents. In an ideal world, children feel and appreciate their parents’ love so they will return it by supporting and taking care of them late in life.

Guilt as a retirement plan

Reality, however, can differ from the ideal. Not all parents and children develop positive and mutually caring relations. Various situations can lead to adult children’s reluctance to take care of their aging parents.

Still humans have an innate desire for emotional ties, and parents can manipulate the fear of losing them to ensure that one’s “investment” will be “returned,” as we might say from an economic point of view. In China, this typical expression of safeguarding one’s own interests is expressed with the concept called “filial piety.”

Basically, filial piety uses feelings of guilt and fear of the judgment of others to guarantee that adult children return care to their parents. Non-fulfillment of this norm can lead to moral pressure and criticism. In the past, non-filial offspring would be reviled by neighbors. Today they may face public trial by social media.

From an economic perspective, filial piety is very cost-effective. It has largely managed to maintain a privatized and stable operation to handle Chinese society’s long-term elderly care. Public pressure helps to guarantee each child support their parents, leaving society exempt from bearing the costs and responsibility.

But changing social norms have gradually weakened the functioning of this traditional moral mechanism.

Under China’s Communist system since the 1950s, ordinary Chinese people relied on their work placess to provide basic pension and benefits when they retired. This unwound the entrenched private elderly care model and put the expense of retirement into the state’s hands. Subsequently, the Cultural Revolution also challenged the emotional bond between parents and children and broke the basis of a spontaneous return from children. Were the Chinese government really capable of taking over entirely the care of the elderly, both the expense and the personal attention required, these social changes wouldn’t have posed a problem.

Staying young in Beijing (Craig Nagy)

But with China’s economic reforms of the 1990s, certain state-owned enterprises could no longer fulfill their commitments to their workers’ cradle-to-grave care. Even though some basic retirement benefits are provided in cities, they don’t compare with those of advanced countries. While the old benefit system has been dismantled, a new pension system is not yet in place, leaving people to suffer.

Only-child distortions

So now the question is, “Should China restore its original privatized elderly care model? And is this model going to work?”

It certainly isn’t going to be easy for China to go back to the old tradition of counting on filial piety for taking care of the nation’s elderly. Even if filial piety is still common in the Chinese mindset, it is no longer really the same concept. In particular, the one-child family planning has created so many egocentric little emperors. As China continues its free-market reforms, full labor mobility becomes a necessity. Despite of the constraint of the huko, the household registration system, rural labor has largely migrated to the urban areas.

Millions of people work far from their hometowns, meaning diminishing numbers of parents are able to live with their children, as China follows in the footsteps of developed countries in the West. Even for those who haven’t migrated, the soaring living costs oblige people to work overtime. Despite their guilty feelings towards their families, people make work and income their central priority.

Since returning to the old elderly care system is not possible, China should instead focus on improving its public pension system. Whether one worked for the collectivity or the private sector, after a certain age all people should be entitled to equal amounts of public support that is sufficient to live on, and adjusted for inflation.

This is similar to the United States’ Social Security system, though in the U.S., payments are adjusted in accordance with each individual’s personal income, with a ceiling. The U.S. method unfortunately punishes housewives who don’t have income, and to a certain extent also makes the poor even poorer and the rich even richer.

Since living costs vary in different places in the long term, free flow will allow retired people to move to cheaper and healthier environments, and this can effectively make room for the urban workforce.

Another advantage of a public pension is to reduce parent-child economic dependence. Many Chinese have always had the idea of “raising children for old age.” They regard their offspring as an investment in their retirement, so they push them, control their studies, career and lives. This can lead to conflict. Decoupling economic dependence will help parents to put their interests outside of this, and make them focus elsewhere. This will encourage more spontaneous support of children among parents.

Economic development requires a more fluid movement of the workforce, and in the long run establishing elderly communities and facilities will be necessary.

It may seem ironic that in a free market such as the United States, pension costs are essentially a public duty. As China continues to move towards free-market reforms, it might have to follow suit for its elder care. This may leave the traditional and low-cost moral mechanism of filial piety a quaint vestige.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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