The ancient records of humankind are rife with stories of men and women who have outlived the generally accepted lifespan of other humans. Often by what are described as “magical” or other supernatural means, we find accounts in antiquity the likes of Utnapishtim and his wife in the Epic of Gilgamesh, who (like Noah, their most obvious counterpart within a host of similar legends) obeyed God by building a ship to survive the great flood. For this, Utnapishtim was granted immortality.
The fascination with extending one’s natural lifespan has continued throughout the ages, whether appearing in the writings of Herodotus, or in the quests of conquistadors seeking a Floridian fountain of youth along the lost river of Jordan. However, according to records that document lives of people who have attained the greatest longevity, to reach 120 years is far from being commonplace (which, interestingly, was believed to be around the average age of the Macrobians in Herodotus’ recollections, who were said to have sustained themselves on a diet of mostly fish, and of course, bathed in a fountain believed to have the power to prolong their lives).
There is one legend from more recent times that involved a man who, supposedly, had lived well beyond his 120’s; in fact, according to some accounts, he was believed to have surpassed 250 years.
Li Ching-yun was an herbalist who was said to have come from the Province of Szechwan, in a town called Kaihsien. Interestingly, throughout his own life, he said he was born in 1736, though it had been claimed that records existed that predated his stated date of birth by 59 years. This was the claim of Professor Wu Chung-chien, the dean of the department of education in Minkuo University, who it was said “had found records showing Li was born in 1677 and that the Imperial Chinese Government congratulated him on his 150th and 200th birthdays,” as reported by the New York Times in 1933.
Li Ching-yun was indeed widely regarded as having lived a very long life; five years earlier, the Times had reported that many of the oldest men in the area where Li Ching-yun had lived claimed that their grandfathers had told stories of knowing him when they were boys, at which time he was already an adult man.
According to legend, the first century of Li Ching-yun’s life had been spent travelling and collecting herbs, which he sold. After his “retirement” from field collection, he still sold herbs that others gathered for him, which he also subsisted on, along with an occasional portion of rice wine; some of the keys to his longevity, he had often told the curious.
Li’s other secrets to longevity had to do with his philosophy on living: he advised that one must, “keep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, walk sprightly like a pigeon and sleep like a dog” in order to insure a truly long and healthy life.
The 1933 Times article further noted of Li’s descendants that:
According to one version of Li’s married life he had buried twenty-three wives and was living with his twenty-fourth, a woman of 60. Another account, which in 1928 credited him with 180 living descendants, comprising eleven generations, recorded only fourteen marriages. This second authority said his eyesight was good; also, that the finger nails of his right hand were very long, and “long” for a Chinese might mean longer than any finger nails ever dreamed of in the United States.
One statement of THE TIMES correspondent which probably caused skeptical readers to believe Li was born more recently that 1677, was that “many who have seen him recently declare that his facial appearance is no different from that of persons two centuries his junior.”
There has, of course, been skepticism espoused about Li’s lifespan; as early as 1928, a newspaper article from October, 1928, had quoted Dr. Royal S. Copeland saying that, “even if this venerable Chinese is only one-third that age, his longevity formula is well worth living.” According to Snopes.com, the earlier birthday of 1677 might have been a result of an error in the records themselves; and arguably, if Li Ching-yun’s own stated date of birth had been some time in 1736, this would have to be the more likely period during which he had been born.
Still, this would have made Li Ching-yun 197 years old when he passed away, which far exceeds even the eldest known to exist among us. Maybe it’s not impossible… but to live to be nearly two centuries old is still highly unlikely.
There may, however, be another possibility here: could Li Ching-yun’s age (and some of the apparent discrepancies about it) have been due to a case of mistaken identity? It is possible that Li had kept the name of an earlier ancestor, a name that, perhaps, had been used many times throughout his ancestry. This might explain records that showed the name “Li Ching-yun” dating back more than 250 years at the time of his passing; it would not, however, explain the Chinese government honoring him at ages 150 and 200, nor Li’s own claim to have been 197 years of age. To explain this as “mistaken identity” would further require the presumption that the man had possibly been complicit with an ongoing hoax–perhaps one that lasted several generations–which simply cannot be proven.
As medical science nears the stages where technology can improve one’s chances of living beyond 120, perhaps a few of us will still find the notion of a mysterious diet of Chinese herbs and rice wine thought-provoking. Or, one could always employ those time-tested traditions of tortoise-sitting and pigeon-strutting instead.