Since the outset of the reform process in 1978, rural China has been undergoing fundamental changes in the relationships between the state, society and individuals. Social policy, including pension policy for rural residents, is an essential factor in this transformation process which has influenced the life chances of many peasants. This paper deals with the relationship between social policy and individual life courses in the case of Shanghai’s rural pension policy. It integrates the theoretical insights from life course research to emphasise the close relationship between the state welfare and the institutionalisation of the life course. By analysing biographical interviews conducted in rural Shanghai, this article has identified the changing nature of welfare mix in rural old-age security as well as the emergence of the notion of retirement among the peasants in rural Shanghai. The introduction of the innovative rural pension policy has given rise to the rudimentary emergence of a modern life course, in the contour of a temporal partition between work and retirement. However, diverse local subsidies and individual household situations have led to different perceptions and biographical orientations of the peasants with respect to their old-age security and retirement.