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'He Is He, and I Am I': Individual and Collective among China's Rural Elderly

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China's rural elderly strongly feel the tension between the life patterns they had expected to follow and the risks and possibilities presented by a more dynamic and individualised society. This paper discusses how the elderly react to the rapid changes in intergenerational relations. The focus is on their strategies towards the two most common types of living arrangements during old age: maintaining an independent household, and living with a son's family. Earlier generations of elderly perceived cohabitation with a son as the only natural arrangement, but interviews indicate that living in an independent household has become an accepted alternative. This illustrates how China's rural elderly are able to create and accept changes in family relations and new life patterns. Their problems are generated by the lack of social services in rural areas rather than by any culturally determined resistance to change. The last part of the paper discusses recent social engineering projects aimed at reintegrating the elderly into society. By looking at how the elderly adapt to changing family relations and how others imagine their reintegration, the paper highlights the complicated patterns of social change that have emerged in China's villages in the wake of decollectivisation.

Affiliations: 1: Aarhus University;, Email:; 2: Shandong University;, Email:


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