In January 2016, as China experienced this century’s most prolonged cold snap to date, farmer Wang Gui, from Xiaohe Village in northwestern China, decided to kill himself.
One night, at four o’clock in the morning over in nearby Dahe Village, the telephone awakened the local carpenter, Zhang Yougen. It was pitch black outside. There was a crowd in Wang’s wheat field, trying to break down the door to the cellar. Zhang approached, and saw Wang’s lifeless body. Wearing a dirty grey jacket, he was bobbing up and down in a vat of water with his arms outstretched.
Ever since Wang turned 60 years old, he had felt his health declining. The most obvious symptom was shortness of breath: He would be gasping for air after the slightest physical exertion. Consequently, heavy labor on the farm was out of the question. Initially, Wang believed that his lungs were damaged from his years of smoking, except his symptoms didn’t go away after he quit. Over time, his illness robbed him of his independence, and he fell into a deep depression.
Wang lived with the younger of his two sons, Wang Dachun. Despite their physical proximity, Dachun and his father rarely spoke. As knowledge of Wang’s lung disease became the subject of embarrassing village gossip, Dachun put off talking to his brother about it. Wang suspected that his son was secretly hoping he’d keel over sooner rather than later.
Wang’s suspicions were confirmed when he found out that his two sons had put in an advance order for a coffin. Eventually, Wang, despite his fear of death, started to seriously contemplate suicide, and eventually succeeded.
According to the customs of the Loess Plateau — a vast area of northern and western China characterized by its sandy, yellow soil — people who die outside the family home cannot be carried back into the house. Zhang thus spent two days in the Wangs’ courtyard constructing the dead man’s coffin.
Wang’s story is, unfortunately, one of a growing number of similar cases. As China rapidly urbanizes and many rural areas struggle to keep pace with the country’s development, the suicide rate among elderly people has been on an upward trend. Unable to endure his ailing physical and mental health, he ultimately chose suicide as the last available option.
When I visited several rural villages in western China, I saw firsthand how traditional beliefs such as these are coming into conflict with the modern lifestyles of the younger generation. Historically, elderly people in this part of the country would rarely seek medical attention for health problems that they developed in their old age. This was partially due to poor health care infrastructure, and partially due to a custom which held that it was more auspicious for the elderly to die in their own home than away from it in hospital.
Today, however, the needs of the old and infirm often put pressure on their families. Traditional norms that cause elderly people to refuse medical care and hospital visits are at odds with a family structure in which the younger generation often spends months on end away from the ancestral home. Several older people I interviewed reported that this discrepancy led to feelings of ostracism from their families.
In 2008, the Center for Rural Governance at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, in central China’s Hubei province, conducted a six-year study of the living conditions of elderly people in 25 villages throughout 10 provinces in China, and discovered that the suicide rate among elderly had increased every single year. The investigation showed that the high suicide rate in rural China is closely related to drastic changes in rural family structure and intergenerational relations.
The investigation also showed that the source of the anger, despair, and loneliness felt by many elderly people is frequently a perceived lack of respect from their own children. This, in turn, has been influenced by changes in family structure. Whereas several generations of western Chinese families previously lived under the same roof, nowadays more and more nuclear families have emerged, as younger generations choose to live away from their parents.
As a result, the system of clan-based patriarchy, which held that the eldest male in the household had the most influence on decision-making, has been gradually replaced by a more matriarchal structure, as mothers now command more authority over how their children are raised.
Wang’s case — and many others like it — illustrates the challenges China faces in maintaining positive intergenerational relationships while at the same time pushing for greater economic development.
A local saying in the western countryside encourages people to “look after their children and protect their elderly.” However, this can only be realized in an environment that allows seniors to stay safe and healthy while at the same time allowing the younger generation to share in the benefits of China’s developing economy. Until elderly people are provided with a broader social safety net and greater financial support, the country’s aging population will continue to throw up tragic suicide cases such as Wang’s.
(Header image: Police prevent an elderly man from jumping off a bridge in Chongqing, Dec. 5, 2013. VCG)