Retirement from working wasn’t always bliss for ancient Chinese officials
Chinese seniors rarely lack things to do in retirement these days. With legislation allowing female public sector workers to retire at 55, and men at 60, there’s more than enough time for them to take up hobbies, hit the road and travel, get back into the dating scene, or care for grandchildren in the city.
In ancient times, however, retirement was mainly a luxury—or a curse for those who wanted to maintain their influence and keep working—afforded to officials. Ordinary folk, if they made it anywhere close to what’s considered old age today, rarely made enough money to stop working, and simply toiled until they physically wore out and had to be cared for by their children.
Occasionally, the state would play a role in officials’ retirement plans. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), for example, every subject over 80 would receive grain, meat, and silk from the government for free. For officials, some embraced retirement and wrote epic tomes or poignant poetry, some headed back home and farmed until the end of their days, while others still fought to get back into the emperor’s good books and earn a way back into positions of power.
The earliest records of retirement for officials date from the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE). The Book of Rites (《礼记》) records that officials needed to “give their jobs and power back” to the emperor when they reached the age of 70. The word “致仕 (zhìshì)” is used to indicate resignation and retirement from an official post. The modern term for “retire (退休 tuìxiū),” first emerged in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) when the poet Han Yu (韩愈) wrote “I lived here after retirement, and wrote [the essay] ‘A Reflection of My Life’ (退休于居，作《复志赋》)” in the preamble to that same essay. Later, the official record History of the Song (《宋史》) described retired officials who enjoyed up to 15 years of no work, reading books, and writing poetry after giving up their posts.
Given that the average lifespan in ancient China may have been as low as 40 years old, most people likely did not meet the 70-year retirement age mentioned in the Book of Rites, and simply worked until their death. This remained the retirement age until the 14th century, when some officials were permitted to retire when they reached 60, though this varied depending on their role. Civil officials in the capital still retired at 70, military officials at 60, and officials outside the capital at 65. The rule was changed back to 70 years old in the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911).
Pensions also varied throughout the centuries. In the Han dynasty, retired officials could get monthly salary equal to one-third of their previous monthly salary, which was over 2,000 dan (around 30 kilograms) in unhusked grain. This was at the whim of the emperor, however, who might reward his favorites with their whole salary even once they had stopped working. Eight centuries later, the majority of officials in the Tang dynasty received no pension, but were gifted farmland by the emperor on retirement. For some rulers, enforcing retirement ages was a convenient way to get rid of unwanted or stubborn officials at court. Emperor Shenzong of Song, for example, fed up with intransigent elders at court, “allowed” retired officials to first gain a promotion and then enjoy half or even all of their salary as a pension if they retired.
Some officials were desperate to quit due to illness. In “Night Thoughts While Travelling (《旅夜书怀》),” the poet Du Fu (杜甫) wrote, “I made a name for myself with my poems and articles, but now I have to retire due to my illness and old age.” Retirement due to sickness was known as “乞骸骨 (qǐ háigǔ, let my sick old body return home),” but final permission rested with the emperor.
When Guo Shoujing (郭守敬), a talented astronomer and politician of the Yuan dynasty (1206 – 1368), was already 72 years old, Emperor Chengzong declined his retirement application in order to keep him working at court. And just to make things fair, the emperor prohibited all other officials in the astronomy bureau from retiring as well.
Even severe illness was no guarantee of being granted retirement. Feng Qi (冯琦), minister of rites during the Wanli Emperor’s reign in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), had his retirement application rejected 16 times by the emperor. Feng finally died on the job in his 40s.
Not all officials were desperate to retire and give up their position to others. The Tang dynasty text The Anecdotes of the Emperors, Ministers, and Common Men (《朝野佥载》) states that Hou Zhiyi (侯知一), an official in the war ministry, refused to retire when other officials hinted he should step down. In order to demonstrate he still had the pep for the job, Hou organized a stunt where he walked for several miles in the palace grounds in front of Emperor Wu Zetian and other officials. But instead of displaying his vigor, Hou’s stunt apparently left many at court thinking he had gone slightly mad, and damaged his authority.
Some ministers at least remained productive in retirement. Xu Taishi (徐泰时) of the Ming dynasty was forced into retirement by rival factions at court, but on his return home to Suzhou, Jiangsu province, he made use of his time to construct the Lingering Garden (留园), a famed piece of landscape architecture and horticulture which still stands today and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Some took the idea of retirement to extremes. Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) announced his “retirement” in the year 405 after just 80 days in office in Pengze, present day Jiangxi province, at the age of 41. He returned to his hometown, also in Jiangxi, and spent his life farming and living off of donations from friends—there was no pension for an official who had worked so briefly. He also wrote reams of poetry on gardens, fields, and nature, many of which are still widely read today.
Some were left traumatized when they returned home, however. When He Zhizhang (贺知章), vice-minister of rites in the Tang dynasty, retired and went back to his hometown at the age of 85, he lamented in a poem: “I left home young and returned old, my accents unchanged but my hair receding. The children I met don’t know me, and laughingly ask me where I’m from.” He died two years later.