State Support to the Elderly and Ancestors in Contemporary China

The Chinese state has in the 21st century intervened to intensify its provision for the elderly. It appears to be a response to claims and criticisms of the growing inadequacy of young families to take responsibility for their older generation, as well as the inadequacy of local village guarantees to cope. Intervening to establish new elderly care homes, in a discourse that is consciously modernising, it claims to be more accountable. And in a discourse that is more traditional, it claims to be more benevolent than previous measures. Its intervention both powerfully supplements and poses ruptures to earlier forms of collective and state provision and to the duty and rationality of families to care their elderly members. In observed effect, this intervention and its discourses are interleaved with older moral evaluations of social adequacy and obligation, and of the responsibility of officials of ‘the state’.
This project aims to explore the way the Chinese state permeates and is occluded in the everyday practices and modes of thought of the elderly, their relatives and home villagers. It focuses on the phenomenon of the state taking the body as the site of intervention in the care of the old, paying attention to interfaces where the old have intimate contact with state symbols and material provision. State support for the elderly emerges as a field of politics and of circulation in a political economy.
Two ethnographic sites for this focus are selected for this study. One is the state through care homes supplementing housing and pension among the ‘five guarantees’ that village collective welfare was supposed to provide. The other is the provision of mortuary services in this case by state-owned cremation and cremation urn cemeteries. These two thematic sites will open the semantics of being old in China, referring to both the living and what they become as ancestors and ghosts.
Fieldwork will be conducted between March and August 2015 in Sichuan (where previous fieldwork was conducted in 2010 and 2011) and Beijing to provide comparative data of state supporting the elderly in China, and of their respect and disrespect in the different evaluative discourses in which they are treated.

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