An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

yanglao 養老

Feb 21, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

"Nourishing the aged" (yanglao 養老) was in ancient China a regular ceremony carried out by the kings of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). It consisted of drinking entertainment (yanli 燕禮), entertainments after reverent sacrifice or offering (xiangli 饗禮), and substantial feasts (shili 食禮). The chapter "Royal regulations" (Wangzhi 王制) of the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 holds that similar ceremonies were known under the rule of the mythological emperor Shun 舜, and the Xia 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) and Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) dynasties. Nourishing the aged in the right manner was an expression of filial piety (xiao 孝), one of the important Confucian virtues.

The regulations stipulated that people of fifty years received their nourishment in the [schools of the] districts (xiang 鄉) of the royal domain or that of the regional rulers, those of sixty years theirs in the [smaller school of the] state (guo 國), and those of seventy years theirs in the "college" (xue 學). Elderly persons were formally invited by the king and the regional rulers. The rules of propriety required that even a man of eighty—even a blind one—knelt down and brought his head twice to the ground. Only men of ninety were allowed to employ another person to carry out the kowtow.

During the banquets, and in everyday life as well, those of fifty were nourished with fine grain, those of sixty with meat, those of seventy a second service of savoury meat (er shan 貳膳), those of eighty were supplied with a constant supply of delicacies (chang zhen 常珍), those of ninety received food and drink in their chambers; wherever they went to another place, it was required that savoury meat and drink should follow them. Also the use of a staff (zhang 杖) was gradually extended from the home to the public, and at eighty, an officer was allowed to serve himself of a staff even at court. With ninety, a dignitary received visit from the king and was not forced to go to court.

With the age of sixty a functionary was allowed to stay away from sessions in the "college", with seventy to retire from the court, but from the age of eighty on reported monthly that he was still alive, and from the age of ninety, the king every day sent delicate food.

Quite important for tax payment and labour duties (corvée) was the regulation that at fifty men were not employed in services requiring strength, at sixty not in the army, at seventy they were freed from the business of receiving guests and visitors, and at eighty free from the prescribes abstinences during periods of mourning and only required to wear sackcloth (zhongma 衰麻).

Coffins were ready from the age of sixty, and were checked once a year if in good repair (i.e. lacquer coating), after seventy once a season, after eighty once a month, and after ninety every day. Bandages (jiao 絞), sheet (jin 紟), coverlets (qin 衾) and cases (mao 冒) were only added after death.

From the earliest time on the ceremony of nourishing the aged took place in "schools", actually halls where the king of Zhou was instructed by the Grand Mentor (taifu 太傅, see Three Dukes) and in turn instructed the regional rulers and the dignitaries at his court. Emperor Shun had allegedly nourished the elders of the state (guolao 國老) in the "Higher" Shangxiang School 上庠 and the elders of the common people (shulao 庶老) in the "Lower" Xiaxiang School 下庠. In the case of the Xia dynasty, the two schools were called Dongxu 東序 and Xixu 西序 (East and West School), respectively, while the Shang dynasty called the two buildings Youxue 右學 and Zuoxue 左學 (Right and Left School). The Zhou dynasty chose the designations Dongjiao 東膠 and Yuxiang 虞庠. During the Zhou, the schools were located in the western suburbs (xijiao 西郊) of the capital.

The Liji chapter Neize 内則 "Patterns of the family" also lists the names of caps and robes the kings wore during the sacrificial ceremonies preceding the banquets. The cap of the Zhou was called mian 冕, and they wore dark or black garments (xuanyi 玄衣).

As part of the festivities, the king granted the sons of persons having their eightieth birthday freedom from all duties of government, and the members of families with a jubilee for ninety years of age were all set free (see amnesty).

There were three different types of elderly persons, namely elders of the state (guolao), elders of the common people (shulao), and such having sacrificed themselves for the government (viz. martyrs; si zheng zhe zhi lao 死政者之老). The latter did of course only virtually participate in the yanglao ceremony. The latter was carried out in the Grand School (taixue 太學, later called National University), where the king displayed reverence to the assembled representatives of the three (classes of the) old (sanlao 三老), five (classes of the) experienced (wugeng 五更), and all the aged (qunlao 群老) that had come together. The Son of Heaven venerated them as "fathers" or "older brothers" and so conducted his obligations according to filiality and reverence for older brothers (xiao di 孝悌).

The yanglao ceremony was carried out thrice a year, namely in the middle and last month of Spring (zhongchun 仲春, jichun 季春), and the middle month of Autumn (zhongqiu 仲秋).

Quotation 1. The yanglao 養老 cermony according to Liji 禮記, ch. Wenwang shizi 文王世子
天子視學,大昕鼓徵,所以警眾也。眾至,然後天子至。乃命有司行事。興秩 節,祭先師、先聖焉。有司卒事反命。 When the Son of Heaven was about to visit the "college", the drum was beaten at early dawn to arouse all [the students]. When all were come together, the Son of Heaven then arrived and ordered the proper officers to discharge their business, proceeding in the regular order, and sacrificing to the former masters and former Sages.
始之養也:適東序,釋奠於先老,遂設三老、五更、群老之席位焉。 When they reported to him that everything had been done, he then began to go to the nourishing [of the aged]. Proceeding to the School on the East (dongxu 東序), he unfolded and set forth the offerings to the aged of former times, and immediately afterwards arranged the mats and places for the three old men, and the five experienced men, for all the aged [indeed who were present].
適饌省醴,養老之珍具;遂發詠焉,退脩之以孝養也。 He then went to look at the food and examine the liquor. When the delicacies for the nourishment of the aged were all ready, he caused the song to be raised.
反,登歌《清廟》,既歌而語,以成之也。言父子、君臣、長幼之道,合德音之致,禮之大者也。 After this he retired and thus it was that he provided for [the aged] his filial nourishment. When they had returned [to their seats after partaking of the feast], the musicians went up and sang the ode 清廟, after which there was conversation to bring out fully its meaning. They spoke of the duties between father and son, ruler and minister, elders and juniors. This union with the highest description of virtue in the piece constituted the greatest feature of the ceremony.
下管《象》,舞《大武》。大合眾以事,達有神,興有德也。正君臣之位,貴賤之等焉,而上下之義行矣。 Below [in the court-yard], the flute-players played the tune Xiang 象, while the Great Dance (Dawu 大武) was danced, all uniting in the grand concert according to their parts, giving full development to the spirit [of the music], and stimulating the sense of virtue. The positions of ruler and minister, and the gradations of noble and mean were correctly exhibited, and the respective duties of high and low took their proper course.
有司告以樂闋,王乃命公、侯、伯、子、男及群吏曰:「反養老幼于東序。」終之以仁也。 The officials having announced that the music was over, the king then charged the dukes, marquesses, earls, counts, and barons, with all the officers, saying, "Return, and nourish the aged and the young in your eastern schools." Thus did he end [the ceremony] with [the manifestation of] benevolence.
Translation by Legge 1885, slightly changed.

Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE), founder of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), revived the ancient Zhou ceremony by announcing that in each district and township, three elderly persons should be chosen and be feasted by serving them wine and meat in the tenth lunar month of each year. Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) introduced a kind of pension for people from the age of 80 on, with a monthly donation of 1 shi 石 of grain, 20 jin 斤 of meat, and 5 dou 斗 of wine (see weights and measures), while persons of 90 sui and older were given in addition to that 1 bolt of silk and 3 jin of wad silk (xu 絮). Older persons were allowed to use a staff at the court, were exempted from tax payment and labour service, and were spared corporal punishment (see five punishments). In contrast to that, criminals hurting an elderly person were punished more severely. A very interesting aspect is the permission for elderly persons to run a wine shop—apparently with freedom from tax payment.

Emperor Ming 漢明帝 (r. 57-75 CE) of the Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) revived the state-sponsored banquet for the elderly that was held in the Biyong Hall 辟雍, which was part of the National University. Yet at that time, the yanglao system consisted in fact of two parts, namely one local system carried out by the administration of the districts (xian 縣) and towns (xiang 鄉), and one on the state level, carried out by the emperor in the capital and the commanderies (jun 郡) and princedoms (wangguo 王國) (Wang 2009). The former had its origins in the local family clusters which venerated their elderly, while the latter had been created in the days of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) who adopted the ceremony as part of Confucian state ritual.

During the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), birthdays of elderly persons were made public, and they received honorary official titles.

The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) established the yaolang rites as part of the congratulatory rites (jiali 嘉禮, see Five Rites), as can be seen in the ritual code Da-Tang kaiyuan li 大唐開元禮. The emperor, a "sceptre" (gui 圭) in his hands, received the representatives of the elderly at the gate of the National University, bowed twice, and the elderly answered with the same gesture. They were then conducted to their places, facing the south (which normally only an emperor was allowed to do), and the emperor again revered them by bowing twice and from all four sides. This was done separately for the representatives of "three old men" and the "five experienced ones". The meals and wines were then brought in, and served to the "three old men", the emperor in person helping them with eating and drinking. After the meal, the emperor was formally instructed by the elderly, and an archery test was simulated. In the end, the emperor guided his guests back to the gate (Wang 2007).

Even Japan adopted it as part of the Chinese culture taken from the Tang empire and once chose the reign-motto Yōrō 養老 (717-724).

It can be seen that "schools" were mainly established as a place of instruction, where the king of Zhou venerated in an exemplary way elderly people, in order to cement the social hierarchies and to preserve social stability. With this argument, the present-day pension system in the People's Republic is called yanglao baoxian 养老保险.

Chen Youwei 程有為 (1998). "Yanglao 養老", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 965.
Li Junfang 李俊方 (2008). "Handai de cifu yu yanglao li 漢代的賜酺与養老禮", Lanzhou xuekan 蘭州學刊, 2008/4: 138-141.
Liu Dezeng 劉德增 (1988). "Handai yanglao shulun 漢代養老述論", Shandong shida xuebao (Shehui kexue ban) 山東師大學報(社會科學版), 1988/6: 47-51.
Wang Meihua 王美华 (2007). "Tang-Song shiqi de huangdi yanglao li 唐宋時期的皇帝養老禮", Wenshi zhishi 文史知識, 2007/12: 38-43.
Wang Xueyan 王雪岩 (2009). "Handai sanlao de liang zhong zhidu xigong: Cong Xianqin-Qin-Han de shehui bainqian tanqi 漢代“三老”的兩種制度系统——從先秦秦漢的社會變遷談起", Zhongguo shehui jingji shi yanjiu 中國社會經濟史研究, 2009/2: 17-24.
Wu Shuchen 武樹臣, ed. (1999). Zhongguo chuantong falü wenhua cidian 中國傳統法律文化辭典 (Beijing daxue chubanshe), 389.