Hongkongers were shocked by the recent scandal involving a care home for the elderly, where residents were left naked on an outdoor podium while they waited for staff to take them for a shower. While respect for and deference towards the elderly is ingrained in Chinese culture, abuse of senior citizens is a real problem in Hong Kong. Who can forget the stories of elderly people being abandoned in local nursing homes in the 1990s by families who had surreptitiously emigrated?

It’s almost certain that religious and private institutions in imperial China had previously provided some form of elderly care, but the first state-funded home for senior citizens on record was the Dugu Yuan (“lonely home”). Founded in 521 by Emperor Wu of the Southern Liang dynasty (reigned 502-549), a devout Buddhist, Dugu Yuan also took in orphans. Subsequently, homes for the elderly, which went by different names, became institutionalised, funded by both the state and compulsory donations imposed on government officials and wealthy households, as well as private donations. They were quite well run.

During the Jiajing reign period (1522-1566) of the Ming dynasty, regular checks were carried out by the government on homes for the elderly in the capital to ensure residents were being given meals and that the institutions were properly managed. Such checks, however, hint at occasional, or even frequent, breakdowns of the well-intentioned care system, a similar situation to that in present-day Hong Kong.