Elderly Population and physical activity in China and the US

Law and Society in China



[Note: I wrote this as a sophmore in university.]


The elderly population of a developing country can be a good indicator of its development and social progress. It can show an improved standard of living, technological innovations and economical advances within society. Fundamentally, a look at the lives of an elderly population can give good insight to the general direction and prosperity of that country. No better example of this phenomenon is happening in present day China, which hosts the largest population of elderly people in the world.

In the last 10 years China’s economic development plans has enabled it to grow at an unprecedented rate of 7-8% per annum. The rapid development of China’s economy has produced great advances in the living standards of Chinese people. Moreover, China has experienced both rapid growths in the sheer number of elderly people and in their proportions of the total population. This has created an ageing problem in China and is one of the countries’ biggest challenges moving into the 21st century, with the elderly ratio projected to reach 27 percent by 2050.

An extended period of post-work life and an increased standard of living have been the results of the economic reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. As a result the lives of elderly people, particularly their leisure life are an increasingly important topic of social conversations in China. This demographic shift in the structures of Chinese society can be observed in Shanghai, China’s largest city in terms of population. Leisure life of elderly people in Shanghai is centered about public parks and this will be the main focus of the paper.

Chapter I: Statement of the Problem

In Shanghai the elderly spend their leisure time pursuing interests that are mostly related to physical activity. These include but are not limited to aerobic exercises such as tai chi, ballroom dancing and ball games like badminton or football. Through investigative research, this paper will show the relationship between the physical exercise and use of public parks by elderly Chinese people as compared with American elderly people. The differences and similarities, along with possible reasons for each will be examined further in the study.

In Shanghai a foreigner will notice sizable groups of senior citizens in parks and other public places; dancing, singing, exercising and playing games. Friday and Sunday nights people set up small tents with audio equipment, where old and young people come together to sing Karaoke. These are but a few examples of the leisure activities of elderly Chinese people. A profound amount of these activities can be seen at Zhongshan Park in the Puxi district of Shanghai. This park will be the main focus of investigative research in the paper.

The urban elderly population is growing faster than the rural elderly population. Nevertheless about 60 percent of China’s elderly live in rural areas, where poverty is still widespread despite China’s increased development. The nation’s growth benefits have not been equally distributed to the rural regions of China, which has augmented these disparities between urban and rural areas. However given the limited resources and time, this paper will mainly concentrate on the urban areas of China and particularly Shanghai. Essentially the paper will examine old people in the larger Shanghai parks such as Zhongshan Park for example. Alternatively, the American parks this paper will look at are Manhattan parks such as Washington Square Park. New York was chosen for the study because like Shanghai, it is one of the larger metropolitan areas of the country. Additionally past experiences in the park can be used to enhance or put the research investigation of Shanghai parks in context with New York parks.

Although there are other arenas that elderly people can use for exercising, it is assumed that parks are the most preferred places for these activities. Elderly Chinese people may also use gyms, exercise rooms or other open grounds but the general conditions in Shanghai indicate that public parks are the most frequented. The shanghai branch of the National Committee on ageing shows that more than 80% of Chinese elderly people “take part in physical exercises for 3 times or more a week,” showing a fairly high level of active exercising. However it should also be noted that around “15% of the elderly group cannot actually participate in physical exercises for 3 times or more.” It is therefore important to select an appropriate population that most actively mirrors the total population of elderly people in the city.

The scope of the essay therefore focuses on what happens in public parks in regards to elderly people, although other people are also in the park like children or young adults. The observations of elderly activity in the park will be limited to what can be seen by westerners. Studying old people at home or nursing homes might yield different results and a more accurate result than only using public parks in the study. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to obtain these results due to limited time and the willingness of an elderly person to let an interviewer into the house. As a result they will not be included in the study.

For the purposes of this paper old people will be defined as 60 years old or more as it is the mandatory retirement age. The earliest retirement age in China is at factories and offices with 55 years for men and 50 for women. In government offices men retire at 60 and women at 55. This is considerably lower than the U.S. retirement age of 65. There are no transparent definitions of age in law but the mandatory retirement age of 60 will be used. Old would therefore indicate that they have stopped working full time or are supported by their family.

The goal of this study is to discover the relationship between the behavior and physical activity of old people in Chinese and American parks. The research and investigation in this paper could potentially provide a new interpretation of elderly Chinese life. Furthermore through its comparison to American elderly life, distinctions and recommendations can be drawn from the two contrasting topics, to improve the circumstances on both ends.

The study is important because an understanding of elderly physical culture and well-being could be very beneficial to China as it prepares for the challenges of an exponentially growing ageing population. As the number of elderly people eclipses the rate of growth, resources will become sparse and China could find itself unable to sustain its development plans let alone feed the projected 1.43 billion people by the year 2050. Evidently, understanding the ageing population’s well-being will have a tremendous effect on the direction China takes into the future. A healthier population drains fewer resources on medical costs and in turn saves funds that could be allocated elsewhere. An improvement in the well-being of society is therefore another beneficial aspect of this study.

This study could also be used in the US as a means to spark conversation on the role of elderly people in society. With a more physical active and healthier elderly population, the US could also save more funds from social healthcare where it could be allocated in other sectors of society. Furthermore this could also be beneficial for the emotional and psychological characteristics of the elderly population. For example a tai chi exhibition in Washington Square Park could generate an interest for elderly people to become more physically and intellectually active in their daily lives.

The research questions for this study will be:

1. What are the main physical activities in public parks that old people in China pursue?

2. Are there any significant differences and/or relationship between the physical activities of old people in China as compared with the US?

3. What are the reasons for these differences or similarities?

The counterfactual for this study will be finding a sample of elderly people in America that exhibits the same physical activity that elderly people in China partake in or vice versa. The counterfactual would be found through independent research on the internet as the limits of time will not permit an observation in the United States at the moment.

Chapter II: Background

China boasts the world’s largest population of elderly people. The latest data from China’s State Statistics Bureau indicates that the people over 60 years old amount to 140 million, accounting for 10 percent of the population. A report from the China National Committee on ageing points to China’s growing population, which at 3 percent could rise to 437 million by 2060.

China’s median age is forecasted to grow from 30 in 2000 to around 39 years of age by 2025. The national average life expectancy has grown from a mere 41 years of age in 1950 to 70 years of age in 2000. The reasons for the rapid increase in China’s elderly include better standards of living and health care, declining birth rate, longer life expectancy and an ageing baby boom group that have been born in the last thirty years.

Of the elderly people focused on in this study, only 15 percent of those that retire have pensions. China’s existing pension system only covers a sixth of the work force and is already struggling with liabilities larger than China’s GDP. According to state statistics, the average monthly retirement pension is 963 Yuan. Moreover, only one-fourth of the working population can make a claim on the pensions. Some elderly have been denied the comfortable pensions that they were promised. Exclusively reserved for the employees of SOE and civil servants, many migrant workers are also left out of the state pension plan.

In less than 20 years China has reached an ageing population ratio that most developed countries reached in several decades or a century. China faces a dilemma with such a rapid ageing rate because it will become a graying society before it has become a rich society. Historically, population ageing in European countries emerged after or in sequence with the achievement of high socio-economic development.

In these countries the transformation of the age structure usually took place over 50-60 years, which made them better prepared to handle the resulting social and economic consequences. In contrast the ageing population in China will have severe consequences to all aspects of society. It will have implications to economic growth, social welfare, medical care and housing and many more.

This has undoubtedly been a concern for the Chinese government as indicated by their Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly passed in 1996. This law was created to protect the rights and interests of the elderly, covering a broad array of social and economic issues. The Chinese Communist Party and the government have created policies including retirement systems, housing, and social insurance to assist the elderly. Nevertheless these challenges are far from resolved and the cost of providing future state care will be one of China’s utmost concerns in the coming years.

China has placed particular importance to the well-being of old people. China possesses more than 10 million practitioners of traditional Chinese exercises such as taijiquan (shadow boxing) and qigong (deep breathing exercises). In many public parks free lessons are offered, to stimulate interest in intellectual and physical activity. With more plans for the social development of China’s ageing population, China seems committed to addressing the issue of the elderly population.

There are often stark differences in the perceptions of ageing between American and Chinese standings. In America many people associate negative assumptions with ageing. Ageing is sometimes seen as living in loneliness at an old folks’ homes, suffering from memory lapses, constant pain and possessing limited financial resources.

For the study’s example of Washington Square Park, it is not very often that you see elderly people engaging in excessive physical activity. Elderly people can be seen playing chess but throwing around a ball or dancing is often rarely seen. Furthermore there is a stark contrast in the gender makeup of public parks in America and China such as Washington Square Park as opposed to Zhongshan Park. Through initial observations the ratio of men to women is substantially lower in the US’ public parks than it is in China. These are some issues that deserve further examination in this study.

On the other hand, if a typical Chinese person is asked his opinion on ageing a different picture might be offered. Being surrounded and respected by family members, enjoying playing cards with neighbors, enjoying leisure time with their grandchildren are some characteristics usually associated with ageing in Chinese society. Nonetheless like most assumptions these contrasting perspectives of ageing do not indicate any significant evidence to the reality of ageing.

However they are useful in comparing and contrasting the two different populations of old people. In the US, retirement is a time for elderly people to look back on their lives, spend time with their children and grand-children, and relax. Unsurprisingly Chinese old people seem to hold many of these same customs. Another assumption is that the old people here in Shanghai have looked more energetic and outgoing than the middle aged and younger counterparts. In America there is also a culture of “forever young” where women age beautifully. These differences and similarities of elderly Chinese and American are the key points that the methodology will focus on.

Chapter III: Methodology

The basic research for this plan will encompass the three research questions described earlier in the statement of problems. The first research question is the main physical activities that people in China pursue. The questions will focus on the actual exercises and activities that elderly Chinese people do to stay active.

The following question asks if there are any significant differences or relationships between the physical activities of elderly people in China and the United States. Fundamentally this question further explores the similarities and distinctions between Chinese and American elderly park activities. Lastly the reasons for these similarities and differences will be examined in an effort to draw some conclusions or interpretations from the results.

This paper analyzes the basic situation of elderly physical exercise in the city of Shanghai. The instrumentation of this research process will include interviews, discussions and questionnaires with local Shanghaiinese people ranging from young adults to the elderly. The questionnaire will attempt to measure the constructs of question 1 as the physical activities might be more easily attained through a straightforward questionnaire. A copy of the questionnaire can be viewed in the appendix. The interviews and discussions will address questions 2 and 3. This will provide a depth insight into the findings from the investigation.

The population for this study is defined as all adults over the age of 60 years old that attend public parks in Shanghai for physical and leisurely activities. The sample for this period is the adults over the age of 60 that attend Zhongshan Park specifically for the purpose of physical activities. Convenience sampling will be utilized in the research process as this is an exploratory research project and only an inexpensive approximation of the truth is required for the purposes of this investigation. The sample will be selected on weekend afternoons. This should provide an appropriate sample because generally more people are at the park on the weekend.

Research will begin at the beginning of May and will end in the beginning of June. This leaves about eight opportunities for implementing the questionnaire. 20 questionnaires is the target for the research study. A set of instructions will be given to the participants before the interview is conducted. The instructions will be printed in Chinese at the top of the questionnaire indicating that this is a project for school, asking the participants to answer all questions as clearly and honestly as possible.

The first assumption this research study makes is that the sample represents the population. It is clear from an observation that many elderly people go to the park to engage in other activities such as sleeping, reading or calligraphy practice rather than physical exercise. Another assumption is that the participants of the questionnaire will be wholeheartedly willing to answer the questionnaire accurately and truthfully. Old people in both China and the US tend to be skeptical and apprehensive of public surveys and questionnaires, so it is a significant assumption that the study can find participants willing and able to do the questionnaire.

There are a considerable amount of variables in my hypothesis and as such great precaution will be taken in the assumptions and conclusions drawn from the findings. For one, only a small sample of old people can be used here in Shanghai, which could be different in another part of China. Furthermore the duration of time spent in China is only a total of six months which is not an appropriate period of time to make a sound observation about the topic.

The observations could be a result of the season, whereas Chinese people could be more jovial in the spring and exercise more. There are also limitations in the hypothesis because the underlying variables could be misunderstood which could affect the study’s hypothesis. These could be examples like the Cultural Revolution that a person could only develop a greater understanding of it if they lived during that period of time. Furthermore there will be limitations in the Mandarin language whilst conducting the questionnaires. Data and observations from public parks in the US will also be very difficult to obtain. Consequently, most of this information will be researched on the internet and public sources.

In a wider scope, the limitations will degrade the quality of the research but with limited time and resources this study is sufficient enough to observe an approximation of the study. The interviews and discussions should give some good insight or deeper background to our findings. Any conclusions or concrete answers to the research questions will be very difficult and the findings from the investigation also have to be viewed under an eye of scrutiny.

Chapter IV: Results

In order to have a better understanding of the differences between Chinese and American elderly people in terms of physical activity, a sample questionnaire was created for elderly Chinese people. The questionnaires are mainly composed of 17 different activities regarding leisure life and physical activity at Zhongshan Park. 20 questionnaires were printed out to hand to elderly people at the park for them to complete the questionnaire. 3 questionnaires were successfully filled out and returned. Table 1 shows the sample questionnaire that was given to the elderly people at Zhongshan Park.

The interview was conducted with the owner of a local convenience store. His English name is David and he is 35 years old and lives above the convenience store with his wife, his daughter and his mother in law who is over the age of 60. The interview was conducted by a friend who is fluent in mandarin. Some questions that were asked were his opinions about the physical energy and activity of lao ren (old people). He was also asked what he thought the differences were in the elderly Chinese people as compared to the American elderly.

A short discussion about elderly Chinese people was conducted with a Chinese teacher that teaches English at the East China Normal University. She is in her early 20s and also studies English at the school. During this discussion she exclaimed that she considers anyone over the age of 50 an elderly person. One of her more interesting points was that Chinese people traditionally do not celebrate birthdays until they turned 60 years old.

Through the period of research, a counterfactual was not found highlighting American elderly people at Washington Square Park (NY) exhibiting the same physical activity that elderly people in China partake in. However through the research process an excerpt was found from The Beat generation in San Francisco by Bill Morgan highlighting a similar case. In the excerpt Morgan illustrates an interesting account of Chinese people doing Chi Gong and Tai Chi in the early morning at Washington Square, the main public park in North Beach.

Chapter V: Conclusions and Recommendations

The elderly people in China participate in physical exercises, to promote their health and for their enjoyment. The primary places where the elderly people in urban China carry out physical exercise are in public parks.

As a result of the low response on the questionnaires, it would be difficult to make any conclusions or recommendations based on the low statistical evidence indicated in the findings. The language barrier and possible distrust of the questionnaire could be possible reasons for the low return on the questionnaires. The interview and discussions however, can be of value when used to address the other research questions.

David’s answer to the question of comparing American and Chinese elderly people was very insightful and of great interest to the study. He said that the high level of physical activity of elderly people in Shanghai was only a recent development. In the interview David pointed to the fact that westerners would not be able to see the complete lives of the elderly people we observe as some work, take care of grandchildren and do other activities. When he was a boy, his grandparents and other elderly people rarely wondered beyond their street. They chose to visit friends’ closer to home and play mahjong and other card games.

David highlighted that the physical activity that can be seen in public parks, has only developed over the last 10 or 20 years. He said the transportation system has also made it easier for old people to meet up with friends far away. Through the efficient transportation system retirees can organize in groups and do various physical activities at the park. This has made it easier for elderly people to move around and meet with each other. Additionally David alluded that the old people with pension plans have more leisure time because they do not have to work, so our results might only include a population of pension holders.

On the contrary, in America it is often noted that senior citizens find it difficult moving around and have to depend on someone giving them a ride to go where they want. Shanghai has a great subway, bus and taxi system along with more walkable streets making it easier for elderly people to move around. In 2007 the Shanghai Municipal Government announced that senior citizens aged 70 years and over will be given free mass transit on off peak hours. Furthermore Chinese urban cities have been created to encourage bicycles as a form of transport, both as an environmentally efficient form of transportation and an excellent way to exercise regularly.

The research conducted in this study has revealed more factors affecting the perceptions of physical activity in Chinese old people and American old people than was previously included in the study. If I had 6 more months to continue research I would gather information back in New York at Washington Square Park using the same format of questionnaire, and would proceed to conduct interviews in the same fashion that was implemented here in Shanghai. Then I would incorporate the issue of transportation and pension plans into the interviews, asking if that has any impact on their physical activity decisions. Through further research a more reliable conclusion can be drawn from the observations, which in turn can be used to address the elderly problems that each country faces.


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Table 1


Item Selected

Tick (yes or no)

What are your daily activities here in Zhongshan Park?

Taking care of and playing with grandchildren

Household chores

Visiting friends at home

Chess & Poker playing



Tai Chi


Kite Flying

Ball games: Football, Basketball etc.

Racket games: Badminton etc.

Ping Pong



Walking for fun



Jahde Eve

Law and Society in China

Dan Guttman

Final Paper:




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