FOR OLD TIME’S SAKE
Bama county in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region enjoys an enviable reputation as the home of longevity
Although it has been questioned whether the Japanese health organization that bestowed on Bama the title of “The Hometown of Longevity” in 1991 actually had the legitimacy to do so, there is no denying the county in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region has a high proportion of centenarians.
With 300,000 residents in total, the county has around 100 centenarians, nearly five times the United Nation’s standard for a place of longevity, which is 7.5 per 100,000.
More important, the population in Bama over the age of 90 has been rising steadily, since the longevity of its residents first caught the attention of domestic researchers in the 1960s. According to the county government, by the end of last year, Bama had nearly 800 people over 90 years old.
Many organizations from home and abroad have conducted field researches in Bama since the 1990s, concluding the air is rich in negative oxygen ions, the soil and water contain healthy microelements and there is a strong geomagnetic field, all of which are good for health.
These inherent characteristics have turned Bama into a magnet for visiting senior citizens across the country. They flock to the county hoping to cure their high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. There are even some with cancer for whom the magical powers of Bama are a last ray of hope.
The government counts these people, whom the locals address as “migratory bird people”, as travelers although they usually live in Bama for months, even years. It is estimated more than 100,000 of these “migratory birds” live in the houses of local farmers or the houses they helped the local farmers build.
In the morning and evening, hundreds of people dance and do exercises in front of Baimo Cave, a tourist spot that is believed to have the best air quality. Besides the cave is a deep valley through which the Panyang River flows where people line up to drink the water, which they believe to be the elixir of longevity.
Ten years ago, Bama received about 260,000 visitors. Last year, the number soared to about 5 million, and they accounted for more than half of the county’s economy.
Concrete buildings dot the mountains. Almost all the families in the villages along the Panyang River, the core longevity region, manage homestays, eateries or specialty shops, selling local cereals, beans, corn and barbecued pork.
Some villagers, who had gone to work in neighboring Guangdong province, have returned to cater to the needs of tourists.
“The inflow of the travelers has changed the locals’ lifestyle which had not changed for hundreds of years,” says Liang Shaoen, a local civil servant.
Few young people work the land anymore, since running a small business catering to tourists makes them more money than farming.
However, for most of Bama’s centenarians, most of whom are illiterate and have never left home, farming was their livelihood.
The centenarians have something in common that even the locals today can’t share, said Zhang Yuan, a photographer who has shot photos of 120 centenarians in Bama over the years.
“Aside from their simple lives, they invariably have simple minds. For most of their lives, they have lived a hand-to-mouth, but self-sufficient life. They enjoy singing folk songs, and have no desire for money and the other material comforts,” Zhang said.
“It is a mentality that is hard to develop in the modern world,” he added.
Some centenarians sit in the halls of the homestays or shops their offspring operate, acting as a form of advertising and revenue, visitors are expected to give them red envelopes containing cash when taking a photo with them and seeking their blessings.
However, not all attribute the longevity of Bama’s residents to the external conditions, there are some who think it is in the local people’s genes. Sun Liang, a genetic researcher at the National Gerontology Center, said that among the factors contributing to long life, genes contribute about 20 to 30 percent, and the living habits and medical care conditions account for 70 to 80 percent.
“How many years people can live after they reach 90 is mostly decided by their genes. Bama’s longevity is in the first place determined by local people’s genes,” said Sun.
Studies by Yang Ze, deputy director of the Beijing Gerontology Institute, indicates that Bama people came from the Southeast Asia thousands of years ago, and the genes of Bama people are much purer than the modern average.
“The difficult transport conditions made Bama an isolated island for genes. Except during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the genes of some new settlers from North China mingled with the genes of the local people,” Yang said.
They enjoy singing folk songs, and have no desire for money and the other material comforts. It is a mentality that is hard to develop in the modern world.”
Zhang Yuan, a photographer who has shot pictures in Bama for years
A view of the Panyang River in Bama in September.
Huang Miegui and her husband Huang Juanguang, and Huang Juanhui and his wife Yang Miehou (from left to right) pose for the camera in front of their home in Bama last year. The two men are twins, 106 years old, and their wives are both 103 years old.
A photographer looks for a good location to shoot photos beside the Panyang River in Bama one morning in October.
Villagers of the Yao ethnic group perform a traditional bronze drum dance in the Zhuzhu Festival celebrations in Dongshan, Bama, in June.