China’s untiring retirees

Line dancers in Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing


By Duncan Gordon

It’s inevitable. At some point all of us grow old. Even the healthiest person will suffer from some degree of physical or mental deterioration as they reach their ‘golden years’. Sadly, in some countries growing old goes hand in hand with loneliness, as one retires to the sofa and the television. Social circles grow smaller and family might not live nearby.

One of the most inspiring things about life in Chinese cities is witnessing the elderly population living life to the full. Rather than being hidden behind closed doors in anonymous apartment blocks, China’s elderly population are at the lifeblood of urban street life.

In urban parks across the country, from sunrise to midday, the morning is owned by the old. No matter the weather, groups of grannies and grandpas flock to public spaces to chat and kept fit. Pensioners take up all the public exercise machines while those who didn’t arrive early enough do stretches and chat to each other.

Some elderly people play traditional Chinese instruments in impromptu ensembles, giving parks an unmistakably Chinese soundtrack in the morning. Others sing, or dance tango, or practice calligraphy on the pavement, using a bucket of water and an oversized brush. Some retirees play with their grandchildren while mum and dad are at work, while others battle it out at table tennis, with an intensity and ability that would put a lot of youngsters to shame. There are of course also early morning tai chi enthusiasts, faces of supreme serenity and concentration, side-by-side with laughing couples playing badminton.

Practicing calligraphy in the park


Nothing quite beats the sight of a game of jianzi. Five or six septuagenarians kicking a giant shuttlecock to each other, without letting it touch the ground. They often look like a group of Brazilian footballers playing keepy-uppy in training. Just as nimble and just as skilful.

It’s not just in parks that elderly Chinese people have fun. On streets up and down the country old men play cards. More of them pile over to watch the game and shout advice to the players, forming noisy huddles on the sidewalk. Some friends and neighbours pass the day playing xiangqi, Chinese chess, and in the south of the China they could well be playing mah-jong.

Poker faces all round.



As night falls, the grannies come into their own. Street corners and open spaces everywhere are overtaken by middle-aged and elderly women line dancing. This phenomenon took off a few years ago and has gone big. Every city and town has line-dancing groups. There is usually a speaker blaring out garish dance music for the dozens-strong dance troupe to follow.

Living in China and seeing how the elderly population stay active, socialise and have so much fun is a real eye-opener. Of course, no one is immune to the problems the come with growing old. Nevertheless, as many countries try to come to terms with an ageing population, perhaps they could learn something from these dancing, singing, stretching grannies and grandpas. Growing old need not be something to dread.

Photos by Michael Turtle.

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