Lifespan, preindustrial times, and commoners

l read an article which stated that Chinese emperors from the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty lived, on average, 41.3 years, and that Buddhist monks living in the same dynasties lived, on average, 66.9 years. 66 seems like a high figure to me.

Did most people in preindustrial times really die in their 40s?

Although it’s impossible to know the lifespan of the common people aka commoners in the past, I’m sure we can take a good guess. Would the lifespan of a commoner in imperial China have been closer, on average, to the 41.3 years of a Chinese emperor or to the 66.9 years of a Buddhist monk?

First, welcome to the SDMB!

Without knowing the source of your information, one thing that can often be misleading about numbers on lifespans (especially in historical times) is that they are frequently calculated including people who died in infancy or childhood, which was substantially more common in historical times.

So, it probably isn’t that many people died in their 40s, so much as many more people then (as compared to now) died in childhood, and that brings the average number down.

And along the same lines, you have to look out for selection effects. One thing you can be sure of about a Buddhist monk, is that he didn’t die in childhood, or he’d never have had a chance to become a monk. On the other hand, it is possible for an emperor to die in childhood.

So then a commoner would have lived into his 40s like an emperor rather than his 60s like a buddhist monk?

Emperors also had people trying to replace them which may have shortened their life. Pre-industrial childhood death rate pulled the average lifespan down quite a bit. We had a recent thread on this. If one lived to age 10 or so and didn’t die in childbirth or war, one could probably expect about 4-5 more decades of life.

Emperors were often overthrown and killed in civil wars and dynastic coups, which Buddhist monks usually managed to avoid.

Consider that today, in the first world unless you have a serious accident or join the wrong army, you or your peers are not likely to die until well past 60 unless you have made bad lifestyle choices. In the Good Olde Days, childhood diseases killed - depending on who you believe - half to 3/4 of all children under 5. Then, assorted epidemics and endemic diseases would kill people at any age. Poor nutrition and lack of clean water, no central heating, dangerous working conditions, wars and famine could do in anyone. Plagues seemed to recur every two or three generations as the number of immune individuals dwindled. Elderly were at particular risk for diseases the were less able to fight. OTOH, nobility and royalty probably grew up with better nutrition.

Most commoners back in the old days did not die in their 40s. Back then, if you managed to survive long enough to become an adult, chances are you’d live to be about 60 or so.

The trick was surviving long enough to become an adult. The infant mortality rate was much higher than it is now. There were no antibiotics, so diseases often killed the weak, which were children and the elderly. Women would occasionally die in childbirth, and men would often die in war.

If you average it all out, you end up with an average age of death around 40-ish. But few people were actually dying in their 40s. A lot were dying before 20. If you survived to 20, and didn’t get killed in a war or in childbirth, chances are you’d die somewhere in your 60s.

So your numbers do make sense. Chinese Emperors inherited their titles, so an Emperor could die in childhood. People didn’t inherit the title of Buddhist monk. You didn’t become a Buddhist monk until adulthood. So the average age of a Buddhist monk would not include the large percentage of deaths from those who died before becoming an adult.

The average age of carpenters was probably in their 60s. The average age of candle makers was in their 60s. The average age of farmers was in their 60s (Edit - probably not farmers, because children became farmers and could die on the farm, so scratch them off of the list). The average age of fishermen was in their 60s. The average age of anyone who lived to adulthood and managed to choose a profession was in their 60s. There’s not much special about Buddhist monks, though they might have a slightly higher life expectancy just because they tend to segregate themselves in temples and therefore might avoid some of the plagues and things that tended to kill the elderly.

That’s the thing about averages. People weren’t dying in their 40s. They were dying before 20, or after 60. But if you average those out, the average was in the 40s.

Well, the paper I read mentioned that lifestyle is probably the main reason for the differences in the lifespans of emperors and Buddhist monks.
Is it possible that it was considered unusual when Buddhist monks lived past 40 and that this happened because they were religious practicioners?

This, I suspect, is the core factor in the age discrepancy.

You are comparing apples to oranges.

The list of Buddhist monks does not include those who would have become Buddhist monks, but did not get the chance to because they died as a child. If you could somehow include those in your list, the average of age of Buddhist monks plus those who would have become Buddhist monks but died young would also be in the 40s.

Probably not. Please read what several others have posted in this thread about preindustrial lifespans, how childhood mortality skews those numbers, and how monks became monks as adults.

Thanks, that clears up everything. It seems like almost every monarch in preindustrial times was prone to premature death (with the notable exception of the early Roman emperors).

I managed to find the paper which talks about the Chinese emperors and the Buddhist monks (it talks about traditional Chinese doctors too!). It mentions that 93% of the emperors overindulged in alcohol and sexual activity, which explains a lot. Here’s a link to the paper:

Technically, it says that “Among the 88 emperors with documented lifestyles (emphasis mine), 82 (93.2%) were overindulgent in drinking alcohol (n=9), sexual activity (n=8), or both (n=65).”

So, yes, 93% of 88 (out of a total of 241 emperors in that sample set). That’s 34% of the total, to which you can point to the fact that they did overindulge. For the other 66%, either they didn’t overindulge, or, in most of the cases, nothing is known.

I think it’s relevant to note that the data also shows:

  • 28% of emperors were murdered
  • 12% died before age 20

And, supporting the point that there really weren’t many (if any) child monks, only 1% of them died under age 20.

Did at least some emperors live unhealthy lifestyles? It looks that way. Was that a factor in earlier deaths than monks? Quite possibly. But, one can make a pretty strong case that the 25-year difference in average lifespan between emperors and monks was more a function of violence and childhood mortality than it was a function of the monks practicing a healthier lifestyle.

A frequent cause of death among European royalty is hunting accidents. How many hunting accidents do Buddhist monks die of?

And “with documented lifestyles” is another selection effect. We know about emperors’ lifestyles because someone commented on them. And people are much more likely to comment about the extreme, unhealthy lifestyles than about the boring, clean ones.

That is overstating the case a bit. While someone can become Emperor as a child, it’s more likely to happen when the person is already an adult. And a boy can become a Buddhist monk at age 8 or 10, after the worst of the childhood diseases but still far short of adulthood. It may still be the case that emperors really were more prone to early death than monks; the statistics we’ve seen so far just aren’t sufficient to be sure.

So writers at least as early as 500 BC or so and perhaps earlier were saying that people lived to be 70 or 80. Which seems pretty close to how old we live now.

As mentioned above, death in birth and childhood was much more prevalent. It could probably be assumed that accidental and violent death were also more likely. If you could manage to survive childhood and not get impaled on a spear though, it seems that at least people living at the time thought you lived about the same amount of time that today we think that you live.