While not totally unexpected, I was saddened today to learn of the passing of Luo Meizhen. At 127, Ms. Luo was purportedly the world’s oldest person ever. She had developed a string of health problems in recent months and died this past weekend. Her grandson was quoted this week as saying Ms. Luo was kind but that she also had a temper. I was fortunate to meet her earlier this year when I travelled to her home in remote Bama County. Indeed, I witnessed both sides of her personality. I gave an account of our meeting in a piece that ran this afternoon in The Atlantic. Ms. Luo was the featured player in an area known as ‘Longevity Paradise’. As an addendum to The Atlantic story, here’s more about Ms. Luo and the centenarians of Bama County as originally written a few month ago.
Searching for Ms. Luo
The little boy took Lily’s sleeve and led us back through a dark hallway. It opened up onto a sparsely furnished room that contained only a wooden bed and table. Luo Meizhen was sitting there, illuminated by a solitary beam of dust-speckled sunlight. She was impossibly ancient and impossibly small and to be honest… perhaps a little difficult to look at. Introductions were made and Ms. Luo, with chopsticks in her right hand, blocked out the sun as she gave me a cursory up and down glance. Returning her attention to a bowl of pork and rice, she loaded the chopsticks and in a surprisingly strong and clear voice, simply said… “No.”
After an arduous trek to meet her, the oldest woman in the world had just told me there would be no interview and no photographs. My heart sank.
Over the previous 3 days my wife and I had spent 13 hours travelling by bus through one of the longest and heaviest rainstorms I can ever remember. Seriously, we thought of stopping and getting off twice. Once we arrived in Bama, we waited two more days for the weather to clear, allowing us to travel another two hours over the rutted, muddy road that eventually took us to tiny Bamai Village. All of it, just to meet Luo Meizhen.
I’d come to Bama County to see if I could maybe shed some light on why nearly 90 people in this one remote county in rural Guangxi Province, were over the age of 100. In the end I didn’t find out much about the why, but I did meet some remarkable people. I was able to spend time with a number of centenarians and locals of all ages during our week there, but meeting Ms. Luo had been the goal. She was the reason I’d travelled so far and waited so long. That’s because Luo Meizhen was quite possibly the oldest living person… ever.
Luo claims to have been born in September of 1885, but “proof” of her age is practically impossible to verify. Birth certificates didn’t became commonplace in this area until after the 1949 Communist takeover. A faded copy of her state issued identity card is the only evidence that Luo is the age she says she is. If you haven’t yet done the math, Luo Meizhen says she is 127 years old.
She was a bit cranky the day when we met, as I said, initially refusing to let me take any photographs. We decided to just try and talk for a while but even talking was an exercise in patience. Ms. Luo is a member of the Yao Nationality and speaks almost no Mandarin. Every syllable of our conversation went from me, to my Chinese wife Lilly, to a great-grandson, to a daughter-in-law, to Ms. Luo… and then back.
The old woman took my hand at one point and then quickly threw it aside, and giggling like a school girl she loudly proclaimed that the foreigner was very fat! Her hands were the size of a small child’s, bony and as delicate as a bird. The skin was paper-thin but surprisingly warm. It wasn’t too long before Ms. Luo warmed up to me and while playfully slapping at my legs; she consented to letting me take a few shots.
I learned later that over the just finished two-week Chinese New Year holiday, she’d had many visitors and was tiring of all the attention. So many visitors says a lot about her appeal, especially considering the trek to get there. Bama County is in the middle of nowhere… Luo Meizhen lives on the outskirts of nowhere. If Luo really is 127 she’s not only the world’s oldest living person — she’s the world’s oldest person ever recorded. The previous record-holder, Jeannie Calment of France, died in 1997 at the age of 122.
Huang Magang is wearing an ancient jade bracelet and holding the 红包- Hóngbāo (red envelopes) I’ve given her. During the Lunar New Year, mainly in Southern China, red envelopes containing cash gifts are typically given by the married to the unmarried, most of who are children. In Bama County, the practice has been extended to include the many centenarians in the community.
At 105, Ms. Huang of Bapan Village has outlived two of her six sons. She told me she has never been in the hospital, had an injection of any kind, or any other medicine. Her only physical problem is that her hands get cold.
Mr. Luo (below) told us he is the oldest living nephew of 127-year-old Luo Meizhen. He turned 93 this past spring. When we met he was in a fairly inebriated sate, happily celebrating the Chinese New Year. He wasn’t alone; most of the men in tiny Bamai Village were celebrating with homemade rice wine, beer and the infamous clear distilled liquor called baiju. I cannot recommend the baiju. By the time we left Bamai Village our faces were almost certainly as pink as Mr. Luo’s. To celebrate the New Year we were invited into home after home for a ceremonial toast – or six.
Locals Ply Lily with ‘Longevity Snake Rice Wine’
I met 黄妈文 (Huang Mawen) on Valentine’s Day and almost immediately fell in love. Ms. Huang (below) is 108 years young, sharp as a tack and has a playful sense of humor. I told her she was still beautiful and with a twinkle in her eye she asked me if I was married… the entire room broke into laughter.
At 78, Xiao Huang (below) is the Huang Mawen’s youngest daughter. The younger Huang still works every day, either in the fields or at the family’s road-side store. Her only physical problem is a touch of glaucoma. Under 5 feet tall, she is as trim and fit as many women a third her age.
Huang Li (below) is next in line to join the centenarians of Bama County. She’ll turn 100 later this month. She still cares for as many as five great-great-grandchildren at a time and move like a woman half her age.
Huang Li – 99
Even though Bama is known for the number of centenarians that live there, and for longevity in general, there are still plenty of kids. In each small village we visited we quickly picked up an entourage. I always remember to bring along some taffy candy when I travel and the four boys below had cleaned me out in 20 minutes. Except for the time I spent with Ms. Luo, they never left my side during a three-hour visit to Bamai Village.
So what exactly is Bama’s secret of longevity? I’m still not exactly sure, but I don’t believe it’s really a “secret”. The harsh, hilly terrain calls for hard labor. The locals have worked punishing, physical jobs since they were very young. At 70, one is still considered young enough to carry out demanding physical work. Not until 90 are they typically given lighter work such as cooking, collecting firewood and looking after generations of children.
63 & 68 – Still Working the Fields
Manual Labor is the Norm
Some studies have shown that the earth’s magnetic field in Bama is so strong that it can improve blood circulation, and the water in the area, naturally filtered by the limestone karst terrain, contains a great amount of minerals and microelements, all good for the body. Abundant annual rainfall contributes to a very high ration of negative ions in the air, which has been show to strengthen resistance to disease while increasing metabolism and stabilizing blood pressure.
Diet almost certainly plays a role. Villagers eat very simply with rice and corn being staples. Sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, pumpkin, millet, soybeans and local mushrooms are also common. While they do eat the local pygmy pigs, as well as some chicken and duck, vegetables provide most of the nutrition.
Bama Pygmy Pig
I also have a feeling attitude plays a big part. My 108-year-old Valentine, Huang Mawen, explained that she was taught at an early age the importance of helping others. “Do good deeds, have a helpful attitude, show kindness every day and never give up,” she said. There was indeed a certain sprit, a kindness and patience on display by almost everyone we met in Bama County. I look forward to my return.
If you’d like to see and experience Bama for yourself, I’d suggest you make the trip soon. Developers, eager to cash in on the old folk’s fame, have built accommodations for more than ten thousand in and around the various “Longevity Villages”. Bama Longevity Water is among the highest priced bottled waters in China and Longevity Snake Wine is sold (and consumed) in every village we visited. I fear KFC can’t be far behind.
As I mentioned earlier, my encounter with Ms. Luo ran as a feature in The Atlantic today and much of the rest of this story was featured in an 11 page spread in the May issue of Artphotofeature Magazine.
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