by Ernie Diaz
Young people don’t appreciate life because they have no concept of death. Once they reach middle age, see the first white hairs, feel joints creaking, they start realizing the ride eventually ends, and that maybe they should check both their speed and their road maps. Those who can should make Guangxi’s Bama County a stop on the itinerary, not only for a stunning slice of South China life but for invaluable clues to the mystery of making it past 100.
Indeed, though far less commercially successful than their neighbors in Guangdong, the inhabitants of this Elysian little corner of Guangxi last far longer with what they have. During the 1991 World Natural Science Convention, they were proclaimed the longest-lived folk but for the Caucasus Mountain Russians, the Okinawans, and the Vilcabamba of Ecuador. Among a tiny population of 220,000, the Bama counted 81 over the triple digits, one who had reached 130. Another 226 Bama residents had made it past 90.
News of this statistical wonder launched the influx of middle-aged tourists to Bama County, scientists and health professionals too, all wondering, “How do they do it?”
The layman, pondering longevity, thinks first of diet. The Caucasus Russians have their pails of macrobiotic yogurt; the Okinawans wash down their Omega-3-loaded fish with buckets of green tea. But the Vilcabamba eat no wonder foods. Do the Bama? No. But they do drink things reputed to boost life force, things the FDA won’t be testing for mass consumption any time soon.
Bama local Ms Xiao is still on the young side of 100, but remembers Deng Xiaoping as a comrade-in-arms, one whom she aided on the western leg of the Long March. “I fought with him in 1927 in the battle of Baisi as part of the Eighth Route Army,” she recalls.
Ms. Xiao begins drinking rice wine at 8am each day, sips and replenishes as needed until bedtime, and will readily invite reverent tourists to match her glass for glass. “I drink this wine every day – at least two glasses,” she says with a wink. “It keeps me as healthy and well as you young people.”
104-year-old Xiao Yuanying takes her wine with snakes soaking in it. “I’ve never been to a doctor, you know,” Ms Xiao says. “I worked in the rice paddies until I was 91. Now I leave that to my son and daughter.”
Self-styled hemp activists will be happy to know that another Bama staple is houmayou, a soup primarily of hemp seed oil traditionally eaten twice a day. Aside from that, corn gruel and tofu most typically graces their tables. And when they eat meat, it’s fatty but fried in tea-tree oil.
Hemp and alcohol for longevity seem more a rationale than a rational explanation for so many spry, clear-eyed old folk. Besides, you can go more than a month without food, but only a few days without water, and a few tortured minutes without air. The latter two must therefore play an equally if not more important role in lifespan. The Caucasians and Vilcabamba have mountain air. The Okinawans have pure waters. The people of Bama have both. Green hills and limestone karst, almost a mile above sea level and far from the belching industry of Guangdong, allow a soul to take sin-free lungful after lungful.
As to water, Bama folk drink it straight from the Panyang River which divides their valley, itself fed by springs that flow from the regionally famous Baimo and Bainiao caves. Thus do both Bama air and water abound in negative ions, an open health secret we have expounded on in the past.
Huang Malun, 107, will tell you. She lives with four succeeding generations in a tiny house in Bama town Poyue. Ms Huang will also tell you about traveling with revolutionary Red Army soldiers back in the bad old days; she turned her weaving skills to clothing them. “We lived on wild vegetables,” she says. “All the hardships were very tough.” So how have you lived so long, great grandmamma? “Organic food, good air and water,” she says. “I ate all naturally-grown food. Now they use chemicals, and of course it’s going to hurt.”
Hurry on over if you’d like to see what is still left of true Bama County cleanliness. Developers have already built accommodations for ten thousand right near the “longevity villages”, hotels where they bottle Longevity Water and sell Longevity Snake Wine. Plans include a giant complex with separate facilities for different nationalities so all will feel at home; one can only imagine the smile of gratitude on an American visitor’s face when he’s handed a spam hotdog on a stale bun.
And let’s face it, no one’s going to appreciably expand his life span with a few weeks of mountain air, water, and snake booze. Neither do the natives, for that matter. While all that helps, there is one recipe for long life acknowledged by all who have it – a peaceful heart. No mean feat, that. It involves trading the modern dream of leisurely self-gratification for the ancient paradigm of simplicity and usefulness.
The centenarians in Bama county keep active. Wei Puming, 102, still hunts for his family, while Huang Jiaxiang, 103, weaves bamboo and sells it at market. Three hundred-plus sisters, Lu Dihua, Lu Dimei and Lu Dixiao, are models of self-reliance – refusing family pleas to slow down and enjoy their twilight years.
In their free-time, by far the number one pastime among Bama’s elderly is community folk-singing. They actually throw festivals around the activity, to which more than ten thousand flock after harvest. Taking part are Huang Maigen and Huang Meinian, born in 1897 and 1899, respectively. Self-styled longevity experts all point to the activity as a key to peace of mind and a pure spirit, a calm emotional outlook essential to making it into the golden years. “Do good deeds, help others, be kind, have confidence, and never give up,” the Huang sisters tell tourists, when asked for their secret to long-life. Most walk away disappointed, but the wise understand.