Out of China: Chinese work out answer to mystery of longevity

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PEKING - It is in the early mornings that the capital most conforms to an outsider's idea of traditional Chinese society. This is especially true in the parks: by 6.30am old men have taken their birdcages for an outing, shadow- boxing classes are under way, and large numbers of elderly men and women chat to each other as they walk the paths - backwards.

Some of the more nimble even try slowly jogging backwards. It is, my 65-year old Chinese teacher assures me, very good exercise for old people. Not so much for the calf tendons as for the brain. Walking backwards demands much more concentration and is effective for keeping the synapses firing, he says, before pedalling off at impressive speed on his bicylce.

Tempting though it might be to suspend belief at this point, the large number of agile, fit and alert old men and women suggest that the Chinese may know a thing or two about old age. And, for a mere pounds 1.25, you can buy The Mystery of Longevity by Dr Liu Zhengcai, an expert in traditional Chinese medicine. As Chen Keji, professor of Geriatrics and Cardiology at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, notes in the introduction: 'No one can live forever, but a life span of 100 years is within the reach of almost anyone who practises the traditional Chinese art of healthy living.'

According to The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, the earliest medical classic in China, it is virtually a matter of common sense: 'People well-acquainted with the Way in remote times followed the principles of yin and yang, practised body-building exercises best- suited to their own conditions, were temperate in food and drink, maintained a strict regimen in daily life and did not overexert themselves.'

Eat 'to be only half-full', drink a lot of tea, do not smoke, avoid salt and be temperate in liquor consumption, advises Dr Liu, all of which few doctors would disagree with. Just as crucial, however, is establishing one's regular daily regimen. To summarise the suggested pattern: 5-7am - get up and tap teeth together 300 times, swing shoulders, then massage both sides of the nose and both eyes six times and rub and curl both ears five times. Tap the back of the head 24 times.

From 7-9am - traditional Daoyin outdoor bodybuilding exercises, followed by a cup of boiling water or tea, then comb the hair with one's hands more than 100 times 'to refresh the mind and brighten vision'. Porridge, and then a walk. From 9-11am - read, do housework, or garden. If tiring, tap teeth and swallow saliva.

From 11am-1pm - Eat modest lunch (garlic, fish, chillis and pickles are all recommended) and nap; 1-3pm - more napping, or chess, reading and housework. From 3- 5pm - read or write poems, paint, play the lute, or gaze at sunset clouds. From 5-7pm - more outdoor bodybuilding exercises, light supper and a small glass of spiritous liquor. From 7-9pm - qigong exercises. Then bed and 9pm-5am - sleep.

Temperance in all things, is Dr Liu's message: 'It is best for people at the age of 30 to have sexual relations once every eight days, and those at the age of 40 once every 16 days. Those at the age of 50 are declining in vigour and should have sexual relations once every 20 days and those at the age of 60 should refrain from sex, but if they find it difficult, once a month is suggested.'

This was the main failing of the emperors, surrounded as they were by hundreds of concubines. 'No wonder many of them came to a premature end,' laments Dr Liu.

Chinese doctors have always considered emotional and psychological factors as important causes of illness so Dr Liu recommends keeping calm and cheerful. Shi Tianji, a Ming dynasty scholar proposed the 'Six Always': always be peaceful in mind, always be kind-hearted, always uphold justice, always be cheerful, always be pleasant, always be contented.

China's history this century makes it unlikely that the country's many centenarians have been calm and cheerful for much of their lives. But rural poverty and the trials of the Great Leap Forward famine followed by the Cultural Revolution may have done the survivors' health more good than harm.

'Some scientists estimate from experiments on animals that one can prolong one's life by 40 years if one limits one's food consumption,' says Dr Liu. A survey of 88 centenarians in Hubei province found that one-third had suffered from starvation in childhood and in the prime of their lives.