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Middle-aged Confusion
The middle-aged generation, those of the age 40 to 55, is special in China. Born in the 1950s and early 1960s, they grew up in the most difficult and chaotic periods of recent Chinese history, having experienced and suffered the Great Leap Forward at the end of the fifties and the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). The Chinese economy stagnated in those years, and universities and colleges stopped enrolling students for about a decade. The youth were thus deprived of their right to an education and instead sent to rural areas to labor, so as to "qualify as true members of the proletariat." The reform and opening policy signaled the gradual supersession of the planned economy by the market economy. It also brought about changes in society. Life is now more competitive and challenging, and the social experience of most middle-aged people has put them at a disadvantage, causing career and family crises. According to statistics, the average life expectancy of Beijing people in 2001 was 75.85 years, but that of the intellectuals, especially middle-aged intellectuals, was much lower. According to a survey carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the average age of scientists who died during their tenure from 1991 to 1996 was 52.23. Investigations into the mortality rate of Beijing residents indicates that between 1990 and 2000 male mortality in the age group 40 to 49 had increased by 73 percent, and that of females by 15 percent. When considering the diverse social, economic and family burdens the Chinese middle-aged are called upon to deal with, this is evidently not an easy age to be.

Pressure at Work and at Home

There are middle-age people in key positions in all walks of life in China, but it is inadvisable for them to make career changes, as theirs is not a preferred age group within the job market. Most recruitment advertisements seek applicants under the age of 35. The middle-aged are obliged to work hard to keep their jobs and think hard before seeking new and better opportunities. Among the many laid-off workers in China, a large number are those who were sent to rural areas in their teens during the "cultural revolution," thus forfeiting their middle school education. Their lack of knowledge and training in any line of work makes it hard for them to find new jobs. Those that do receive very low compensation, but their children's education expenses continue to increase, and many are also obliged to look after their parents. Pressure on them is thus very high.

When China resumed the college entrance exam system in the late 1970s, some of today's middle-aged people studied hard and gained university entrance. Their higher standard of education combined with rich social experience gained them key work positions. Having been through so many hardships, people of this age group treasure their opportunities and work whole-heartedly at their posts, displaying willpower and innovative spirit.

Forty-seven-year-old Chang Meng is a woman well-known in Beijing. In 1988, she began using her spare time to run a charity that helped women going through marital difficulties. Since then, she has helped over 100 women overcome their problems. Later, Chang Meng opened a center for disadvantaged children, to which many physically and mentally handicapped orphans came, some of whom gradually recovered. This is a demanding job, but Chang is determined to do it to the best of her ability. She says that at the time she was recovering from a failed marriage, many friends helped, encouraged, and inspired her. Now she wants to pay them back, do more for others and generally be of help within society.

Cao Yan, now 43 years old, had polio as an infant. Both her legs are paralyzed. Her mother died when she was six years old, and her father re-married a year later. Her disability was a source of derision from her two step-brothers and others, making her feel desperately isolated and suicidally depressed. She took overdoses of sleeping pills on two occasions, but was discovered and saved.

Cao's brush with death made her realize that everybody has reasons to survive, and that a person should work hard to discover and use his or her intrinsic value to the good. At 19, after applying for a library card she walked on sticks every day to take the bus to the library and study. Later a traffic accident almost took her life, and she went through 10 big operations. On recovering, Cao felt she should repay all the help she had received from friends, relatives, and society. In 1994 at the suggestion of friends, she borrowed 30,000 yuan and opened the Beijing Love Star Special Skill Training School, and acted as its head.

After three years, she had repaid her loan, and after five years, enrolment at her school had increased from a few dozen to 2,000, and the number of classes from 4 to 87. Students from her school have won awards for writing, enrolled in art colleges, and been on radio and TV programs. Cao Yan and the teachers at her school put their heart and soul into exploring the full potential of children and training their special skills. Students and parents alike are impressed by her school and the local government provides great support. Cao was nominated as the CPPCC Xicheng District committee member, and her friends believe that in future she will play an increasingly significant role within society.

Lack of Family Harmony and Stability

An increasing number of familial dysfunctions have recently emerged among the Chinese middle-aged bracket, most noticeably the sharp increase in extramarital affairs. Experts have come up with several possible explanations for this phenomenon. One is a state of denial on the part of middle-aged men that they are no longer young, manifest in the need to prove to themselves that they are still passionate and charming. Dissatisfaction with their marriage and sexual disinterest in their spouse is another reason why some men seek emotional and sexual fulfillment elsewhere.

According to an investigation in Shenzhen, 16.19 per thousand citizens suffer from a psychological disorder, and 87 percent of these have received no treatment or effective help. The number of middle-aged psychoneurotic men is lower than that of women, but men's problems are more serious as they are less likely to seek help. One psychoanalyst said that a good third of middle-aged men have psychological problems, the most common being depression, anxiety and confusion. Using extramarital affairs to prove to themselves they are still attractive means they are forced to play different roles, which causes intense pressure that can lead to schizophrenia.

But there are those like Mr. Wang, 54, years old, and a researcher at an institute, who do not dare to stray from accepted norms. His wife was formerly a typist at a plant. She has a bad temper and frequently berates him. Her poor educational background and bad temper have brought unhappiness and disharmony to their marriage. Wang considered divorce, but abandoned the idea because of their child. "I am very conservative," he says, "I have always believed that we should keep the household intact for the sake of our child. It is very depressing to be with a woman for whom I feel no affection every day, year in year out. But I have no choice. I have my sexual desires, but my wife has no interest in this direction. I know that a man living with his mistress is not an uncommon phenomenon these days, but to me an extramarital affair is still taboo. I can't start a relationship with any of the women around me as it would be too easily discovered and my reputation ruined. Visiting prostitutes is not safe, and no respectable woman would have a relationship with me without knowing my background. I am not alone in this situation. Some of my colleagues are in a similar quandary. I have never had an extramarital affair because I have to maintain this household for our child's sake. There has to be a woman in the home as the life of a single man is too terrible to contemplate. So I am resigned to this loveless marriage."

Social developments in China in recent years have greatly changed living concepts and values. The improved social status and working abilities of women make them expect more as regards social position, level of wealth, educational background and personality of their spouses. On realizing their marriage is a failure, many now have the courage to give up on it rather than grin and bear themselves.

Attitudes towards divorce have changed. When a couple's marriage breaks down, they now give more consideration to how to arrange their children's lives, as well as their own, after a divorce. Practical problems like housing, property, and child-raising -- the biggest worries for women, as they are a source of mental pain and economic deprivation -- have to be squarely faced.

In the past, divorce was considered a scandal in Chinese society, but is more accepted now. From one point of view, divorced middle-aged women have a particular attraction, as a failed marriage is a painful life experience that makes them more mature. They are thus less self-willed than younger women and have a better understanding of marital and maternal duty. To a single father, a divorced woman is more likely to be kind to his child, and he might appeal to a single man because she can enjoy life without hankering for a child. Most women now have their own jobs and income. If they have been through a divorce, they are well equipped to deal with family affairs, and communicate with the opposite sex. Past bitter experience also makes them more attentive to emotional harmony and the overall quality of family life.

Sex Life -- a Big Problem

Professor Pan Suiming from People's University of China carried out an investigation on Chinese people's sex lives, after which he raised the question: "Why is there no sex within marriage?" From 1999 to 2000 he and 36 researchers made sample surveys in different parts of China. They questioned 3,824 individuals, aged between 20 and 64 in 60 localities. Results indicated that 28.7 percent married couples or common law partners had sex less than once a month, and that 6.2 percent had not had sex for one year.

Researcher Xu Anqi of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences carried out research on the quality of Chinese marriages, and investigated 6,033 individuals. Results indicated that about half had never heard of an orgasm, and among those who had, 44.9 percent of them only after the age of 25. A full 33 percent thought that sex was not that important. When answering the question "How long is your preamble to love making?" only 4 percent of urban couples and 4.2 percent of rural couples answered that their pre-sex intimacy lasted more than 20 minutes, and 60 percent said they had sex without any foreplay. It was found that 95.7 percent of couples did not talk about sex with their partners, 74.4 percent seldom or never expressed affection in their daily life, and 18.6 percent had never experienced sexual pleasure. From these statistics it can be seen that few couples in China enjoy a normal, harmonious and happy sex life. For middle-aged couples, however, other factors make sex into a conundrum.

Thirty-four-year-old Yun is a virtuous and genial woman, but has recently experienced bouts of unexplainable bad temper, refuses her husband's advances and is very impatient. Her husband feels embarrassed and she herself is puzzled. Her menstruation is irregular, her skin lacks moisture no matter how expensive the cosmetics she uses, and she feels unexplainable anger. On going to hospital she was diagnosed as having climacteric melancholia.

It appears that many white collar women workers in China are suffering from early menopause. Professor Qiao Yuhuan from the Medical Institute of Zhengzhou University says that pressure at work and a fast pace of life hasten the menopause. Women need to learn how to relax, and adjust psychologically so as to maintain a good humor. It they feel adverse menopausal symptoms, they should try taking hormone replacement therapy.

A similar syndrome is apparent in men. A report in the First Asian-Pacific Male Science Forum held in 2002 indicates that the youngest hypoleydigism (male menopause) ever recorded in Shanghai was at 39 years old, as compared to the normal age of 50 to 60 years old. According to Wang Yixin, director of the Shanghai Male Science Research Institute, hypoleydigism is the result of falling levels of male hormones. Negligent living habits, unbalanced meals and a poor state of mind also contribute to its early occurance.

Shanxi Radio Station broadcast a phone-in program "What can be done in a marriage with no sex?" which attracted active radio audience participation. One 34-year-old woman said she felt frustrated at her husband's absence of libido. "Sometimes I drop hints, but he pretends not to pick up on them, and when I say clearly and directly that I would like sex, he finds an excuse, saying he is tired or does not have any interest at that moment. This is what it has been like for about half a year. I suggested going to see a doctor so that we can have a normal sex life. He said that almost all couples experience this falling off of desire. To his mind, as we already have our child, a sex life is no longer important. I am a normal, healthy woman and still have natural urges, but my husband is a good spouse in every other way, and I don't want my sexual dissatisfaction to be the cause of the break-up of my family."

Fors and Against Remarriage

Many divorced middle-aged and elderly people consider re-marrying. Fifty-year-old Xiaomi is an expert on the middle-aged and elderly people, and says that the divorce rate in second marriages is high, because both partners have their own living habits that are hard to change. This is why, she says, many middle-aged and elderly divorced people do not enter their second marriage lightly, and would rather live together first, marrying only when they feel entirely comfortable with their new partner.

I have a friend named Liao Liu who is now in her early 50s. She divorced two years ago, and is still very elegant and attractive to men. She is quite definite about not wanting to marry again: "I have my own income, house, and social security. I don't need to rely on a man, do his housework and thus sacrifice myself all over again. I have no wish to marry again as I feel perfectly at ease by myself. I can go wherever I like and do whatever I want without having to tell anyone else. How good it is to be free!"

According to statistics, the highest divorce rate occurs between the ages of 25 and 44, which is also when the highest rate of second marriage occurs. For the year 2000, only 0.5 percent of divorced females aged between 25 and 44 did not re-marry after divorcing. The Chinese re-marriage rate is very high. In 1995, there were 833,000 re-married couples in China. In 1996 the number increased to 862,000, in 1997 to 922,000, and in 1998 to 977,000.

For the middle-aged and elderly, sexual desire is not that strong. What they seek is a good mental relationship and affection. Though many of them long to get married again, they are very selective about their next partner, and like to talk, travel and enjoy time together as good friends before making any important decisions. Those who do not enter their second marriage look for sexual partners they trust or that console them by helping them avoid getting old before their time. There are also very conservative people who think one should not have sex outside of marriage. Still others think that even though a person does not have sexual needs, they still need the company and friendship of the opposite sex in order to stimulate their vitality.

When I'm 64

The ultimate question for the middle-aged is how they will spend their old age, and on whom they will rely if they do not have a partner and children. But for married couples, one partner might fall ill in old age, and their children be too busy at their jobs to look after them. These days, many middle-aged people's children are either studying abroad or working in other countries or cities, and do not feel the same duty to support them as their parents their own. As the Chinese social security and welfare systems improve, however, people approaching old age have more confidence in society in this respect.

The fortunes of the Chinese middle-aged generation are closely related to the development of new China. Both have been through the same chaos and hard times, and are now experiencing heavy pressure at home and at work. They are all too aware of the difficulty of their situation, but are nonetheless tenacious. The hardships they have endured and their rich experience give them confidence, enabling them to deal with ever greater social and family responsibilities.

(China Today May 3, 2003)

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