Life in the countryside has always been tough in China, and strict observance of traditional notions of filial piety would simply have been beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest households before the communist take-over. Proverbs suggested the limits of respect for the elderly in traditional society: ‘With nine sons and twenty-three grandchildren, a man may still have to dig a grave for himself.’1 Even if children were the family pension, the elderly continued to rely for the most part on their own work to eke out a frugal life. And while some prestige may have been associated with old age, in a society that heavily emphasised earning power many people must have felt a decline in respect when moving into old age. As elsewhere, the elderly feared loneliness, impoverishment and abandonment, in particular those who were more vulnerable than others – the ones without family. But in most cases, before 1949, they could count on a measure of care and dignity: their mere survival commanded respect.
Yet by the time of the Cultural Revolution a completely different set of values seemed to dominate, as young students tortured their teachers and Red Guards attacked elderly people. When did the moral universe turn upside down? While the party was steeped in a culture of violence, fostered by decades of ruthless warfare and ceaseless purges, the real watershed was the Great Leap Forward. As villagers in Macheng complained, the people’s communes left children without their mothers, women without their husbands, and the elderly without relatives:2 these three family bonds were destroyed as the state was substituted for the family. As if this were not bad enough, collectivisation was followed by the agony of famine. As hunger stalked an already distressed social landscape, family cohesion unravelled further; starvation tested every tie to the limit.
The prospects for the elderly without children were particularly grim, so much so that many traditionally tried to join monasteries or nunneries, while others established fictitious ties of kinship with adopted children. These age-old customs were swept away with collectivisation. In the summer of 1958 retirement homes for the childless elderly appeared throughout the villages of rural China; at the peak of the Great Leap Forward over 100,000 of them were reportedly established.3
Abuse was rife. Some of the elderly were beaten, even those with only a few meagre possessions were robbed, and others were put on a slow starvation diet. In Tongzhou, just outside Beijing, the head of the retirement home systematically stole food and clothes earmarked for the elderly, condemning the inmates to a winter without heating or cotton-padded jackets. Most passed away as soon as frost appeared, although their bodies were not buried for a week.4 Further south, in Qionghai county, Guangdong, the entire village was put to work in the absence of able-bodied men, who were all conscripted on a distant irrigation project. The elderly slaved day and night, a seventy-year-old going for ten days without any sleep at all. A tenth of the village died in the winter of 1958–9, the majority of them children and those elderly people kept in retirement homes.5 In Chongqing county, Sichuan, the director of one home made the residents work nine hours a day followed by two hours of study in the evening. In another case the elderly were forced to work throughout the night, according to the demands of ‘militarisation’. Slackers were tied up and beaten or deprived of food. In Hunan too they were routinely tied up and beaten.6 In Chengdu, in the winter, the inmates of one retirement home slept on a muddy floor: they had no blankets, no cotton-padded clothes, no cotton hats and no shoes.7 In Hengyang, Hunan, the medicine, eggs and meat reserved for the elderly went to the cadres in charge of the home. As the cook succinctly put it, ‘What point is there in feeding you? If we feed the pigs at least we will get some meat!’ In the province as a whole, by the end of the famine a mere 1,058 had managed to survive in the remaining seven homes.8
Many of the homes collapsed almost as soon as they had appeared, besieged by the same systemic problems of funding and corruption which undermined kindergartens. The childless elderly who were abandoned to the care of collective entities had to scramble for survival by the winter of 1958–9. But life outside the retirement home was no better. Just as children were treated like adults, the elderly too had to prove their worth to the collective, as rations in the canteen were dished out against work points. Hunger was never simply a matter of lack of resources, but rather of their distribution: confronted with shortages in both labour and food, local cadres all too often decided to exchange the one for the other, in effect creating a regime in which those unable to perform at full capacity were being slowly starved to death. The elderly, in short, were dispensable. And just as children were harshly chastised even for small misdemeanours, so the elderly were subjected to an exacting regime of discipline and punishment, in which the family often shared. In Liuyang county, Hunan, a seventy-eight-year-old who complained about working in the mountains was detained and his daughter-in-law ordered to hit him. After she had refused she was beaten bloody. Then she was ordered to spit on the old man, who had also been beaten to a pulp: he died shortly afterwards.9
Inside the family the fortunes of the elderly depended on the goodwill of their children. All sorts of quarrels developed in times of famine, but new bonds also developed. Jiang Guihua remembered that her mother did not get on well with her blind grandmother. The grandfather was a cripple. Both were dependent on others for food but also for help in getting dressed and using the toilet. Jiang Guihua was the one to provide help, as her mother often lost her temper and tried to cut their food rations. But there was little she could do, and after a while her grandparents died of eating soil. They were buried without a coffin, wrapped in some straw and lowered into a shallow pit.10
In the end, when everybody left the village in a desperate search for food, only the elderly and the handicapped stayed behind, often unable to walk. In Dangyang, Hubei, seven people were all that remained of a once lively and noisy village, four being elderly, two blind and one handicapped. They ate leaves from the trees.11