Suicidal elders in rural China

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 5, 2014
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Lin Muwen, a 69 year-old man living in a remote village near Wuhan, Hubei Province, took a shower and changed into a new suit before he burned some paper money for himself. Then he drank half a bottle of pesticide. Before all the paper money was consumed by the fire (an old-fashioned ceremony which Chinese people believe sends money to the deceased in the underworld), the old man died.

Liu Yanwu has witnessed or heard of many scenes like this over the past several years. Some fellow villagers of the old man told Liu that Lin had been planning his suicide for a long time. "He may have had some issues with his son's wife. Dying this way is more 'decent' for him," one said.

In 2008, when Liu's research team conducted field research in Jingshan County, Hubei Province, they were shocked to hear that most people said no old men died of natural causes there. This was the starting point for Liu, a teacher and researcher at Wuhan University, to begin a six-year social science research project on the issue of suicidal elders in rural China.

His investigation has expanded across China to incorporate more than 40 villages in 11 provinces, including Hubei, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei, Henan and Guizhou.

A June 2014 study conducted by the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong reported that China's suicide rate has dropped significantly to among the lowest levels in the world. An average annual rate of about 9.8 people out of every 100,000 committed suicide between 2009 and 2011, a 58 percent drop from 2002. This decrease is thought to largely be the result of population migration from rural areas and of the urbanization of the middle class. Paul Yip, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Hong Kong, said "no country has ever achieved such a rapid decline in suicides."

"China's suicide rate is going down, generally speaking," Liu told China Youth Daily, but he continued in a heavy tone, "but the old men in rural China just can't escape from the fate of suicide. This may be the unique way for them to get relief from the pain of the modern aging society."

Liu was also shocked at people' reactions when old men committed suicide. Take Lin for example: his son didn't blame his wife for his father's death, saying, "People have to live with people who are alive. We don't live with the dead." At the same time, the villagers thought they shouldn't discuss this issue for fear of offending Lin's son: "When someone is dead, let it be."

Even the village doctors are treating the issue in the same way as the villagers. "Just look at it as a normal death," one doctor said. "Especially when old men have diseases they cannot overcome, they chose suicide." One doctor, speaking on behalf of many of his rural colleagues, said, "we don't even feel that counts as suicide."

Besides feeling shocked, Liu and his team also felt angry at the beginning of their research. Once, Liu interviewed an old woman, and three days later, the woman committed suicide after arguing with her daughter-in-law. Liu and some of his fellow researchers attended the funeral and were appalled to find the old woman's family chatting and laughing.

"We each have three sons here," an old man surnamed Chai told the confused Liu, revealing the sad truth that the local old men are at peace with their fate, "the Medicine Son (suicide by drinking pesticide or poison), the Rope Son (suicide by hanging oneself) and the Water Son (suicide by drowning). These three sons are most reliable."

There were more than 40 teachers and students in Liu's team. They divided themselves into ten units and stayed in ten villages in Jingshan County, Hubei Province. During a two-week stay in Jingshan, three elderly people ended their own lives. Similar tragedies occurred in other villages. "According to our statistics, the suicide rate is at least 30 percent in that area," Liu said. He added that he found that the suicide rate among the rural elderly has increased from 100 per 100,000 to 500 per 100,000 in two decades.

Some tragic scenes are even more startling, Liu said. Many old men who have mobility issues would end their lives by hanging themselves from a nearby window. One old couple in Shanxi had a son who didn't give them anything to eat and a daughter-in-law who cursed and beat them. They drowned themselves in the cistern near their home. Liu recalled that someone even told him the story of one old man who wanted to commit suicide but feared that his children would not bury him, so he dug a hole, lowered himself into it, and drank pesticide while burying himself.

"Many stories that the villagers told were recounted in a humorous way," Liu sighed, "but they are actually tragic beyond all imagining. Sometimes I felt like escaping from there, like it is a world where I cannot belong."

These villages were also tainted by the shadow of homicide. Yang Hua, another researcher, recounted that when one old couple drank pesticide, the old woman died, but the old man survived. However, the family didn't take him to the hospital and let him die in bed three days later.

In another example, a migrant son came home to see his dying father after asking for a seven-day leave from his office. But when two or three days had passed and his father was still alive, the son asked, "Are you really going to die? I only have seven days to deal with you." Then the old man committed suicide, and the son held a funeral for him and then went back to work.

Liu said many families in rural areas used monetary terms to measure life and death. "Some people told me about the budget they calculated for treating an old man's illness. If they spend 30,000 yuan (US$4,800) curing the disease and the old man can survive for another ten years, which means the old man can continue doing agricultural work earning 3,000 a year for ten years, then it is worth the money. If not, it is seen as a waste of money."

In many old people's hearts, this sort of theory is acceptable. "More than half of the elders who committed suicide wanted to benefit their children," Liu said, "They didn't want to be a burden for their children and they saw that suicide could bring benefits to the next generation. However, behind the facade of 'benefitting others,' many old people didn't want to die, but the fact is they were desperate."

Liu said that the boom in elder suicides is sickening. "Since 2000, the rural elders' suicide rate has been growing rapidly," he reported. Liu thinks that the modern economic society and furious market competition have contributed to the boom. "Some middle-aged men would bluntly say to me, 'I cannot not even bear taking care of myself, how can I have other energy to take care of the old,'" Liu recalled.

While the circumstances differ from place to place, the common factor is a poor quality of life, Liu said. The other major factor is relief from diseases. These two factors account for 60 percent of elder suicides. Filial piety was valued in the old China, but as a result of the great economic and social changes that have taken place over the past three decades, many elderly people in rural areas can no longer depend on their children for support, and the pension system fails to compensate for this gap.

"We have to resolve three problems to reduce the number of wrongful deaths of elders," Liu said. "Don't let them starve to death, don't let them die from disease, and don't let them die from loneliness."

The Ministry of Civil Affairs said earlier this year that China has more than 200 million old men above the age of 60, 14.9 percent of the whole population, and higher than the 10 percent standard set by the United Nations for a traditional aging society. China will soon enter the peak period of an aging society. The aging population has already surpassed the entire population of countries like Brazil, Russia, Japan, and Indonesia. More seriously, the 2013 data show that 37.5 million old people are disabled and are unable to take care of themselves.

After six years of conducting his survey, Liu hopes that Chinese society and government can pay more attention to the problem. "Old people should live comfortably and die in peace and happiness, and in dignity. Everyone will get old. Such an undignified death is just sad."

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