The Double 9’s Festival and Aging —by Jinny Batterson
One rainy Saturday in September during our year of teaching in Sichuan province, a Chinese friend enticed us to return to a nearby tourist village, a reconstruction of 19th century agricultural life, now mostly dependent on tourist revenue rather than income from raising crops. She said it would be a special day in the life of the town. Getting there required a combination of crowded busses and taxi rides, threading our way along winding mountain roads. We arrived in one piece, grateful to have avoided both accidents and car sickness on the twisty journey. We spent a couple of hours wandering the cobblestone streets, sampling local foods and crafts. Then, about mid-afternoon, we gathered with a crowd of umbrella-wielding foreigners and locals in the central square of Shang Li Ancient Town for a special presentation.
Dancers, magicians, singers, and storytellers entertained us for nearly an hour. We didn’t get much of the dialogue, but our friend translated the basics—this was a festival honoring elders, the “double 9’s festival.” I’ve since learned that the holiday has not always been elder-centric. It originated much further back in Chinese folkloric history as an attempt to counter the excessive “yang” (masculine/outward) energy of two successive supremely “yang” numerals, nines. It was thought that on this day, climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum wine, and spending time outdoors would help to reduce yang, keeping it in balance with its corresponding feminine/inward “yin” energy. Starting in the late 1980’s, the Chinese government tried to rebrand the holiday into one honoring elders. “Double 9” or 99, represents a ripe old age in any culture, and the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (falling in late September or early October) has since incorporated homage to elders in many Chinese locales.
Until a generation or so ago, there were not many elders in China. Dynastic upheavals, civil wars, famines, and natural disasters limited the life spans of all but a fortunate few. Recently, improved public health, more political stability, and better economic conditions have substantially improved the odds of making it to a Chinese ripe old age. China is now one of the fastest-aging countries on the planet. Some experts estimate that by 2030, nearly one fourth of China’s population will be 65 or older. The Chinese government is scrambling to catch up with this demographic time-bomb. Chinese culture, likewise, is trying to adapt as more and more adult children live in cities, far away from their aging parents and the traditional multi-generational compounds of the villages in which they grew up. A “double-9’s festival” is a small sop toward dealing with a potentially large problem.
During various visits in China, I saw different approaches to coping with a looming plenitude of elders, including various schemes to retain aging workers in basic urban services—light landscaping work, street sweeping, commercial child care. Elder-friendly housing compounds and “granny flats” are an increasing part of the housing stock. Plans are afoot to relax existing one-child policies for “double single” couples (in which each spouse is an only child). Such policies, in place since the early 1980’s in urban areas, have stemmed the growth of China’s huge (1.3 billion) population, but also contributed to the rapid aging of its population as a whole. Medical and pension systems are under review, with an aim toward improved governmental support.
It dawns on me, as I get somewhat closer to double 9’s myself, that elders can be, like those in any age group, both a burden and a blessing. In the area of the U.S. where I now live, our proportion of elders jumped substantially in the years between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, so our local and state governments are trying to cope with this population shift as well. I hope that China, a country I’ve grown to love, can craft better policies to help elders continue to contribute, to be accorded and to earn respect, whether on “double 9’s” day, or any other.