Veggie shadow boxers hold the secret of long life

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Autumn in Peking, the leaves are falling from the trees, and a young woman's thoughts cannot help but dwell on her own mortality. But help has been close at hand. China's capital has been host to an international conference on the theme: "How to live to the age of 100".

According to the programme, all was to be revealed at the Fragrant Hills hotel on the outskirts of Peking. A group of Chinese 100-year-olds, presumably privy to the secret of longevity, were due to address the conference and tell how. So, despite the not inconsiderable risk of one's life being abruptly terminated during the chaos of Peking's morning rush-hour, the Independent sallied forth to discover the elixir of youth.

On arrival there seemed at first to have been some mistake. Across the entrance hall, a large banner was strung: "International seminar on reorganisation and bankruptcy of state-owned enterprises." This was therapy for old wrecks of a different sort, I supposed, but not quite what we were looking for.

Shrewdly guessing that the group of middle-aged women in silk Chinese pyjamas was probably not from the State Commission for the Restructuring of the Economy, I followed them through to a large hall where an audience full of earnest, but not particularly youthful-looking, people was waiting, well, earnestly. Here was the Second World Conference on Taiji Training, with its very promising slogan: "Adjust at the age of 40 and live to 100 years old". That was good, there was still time to "adjust".

Last month a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calment, became the world's oldest recorded person, exceeding the former record of 120 years and 238 days. Her recipe for survival seemed relatively benign: keep laughing, dreaming, take exercise, avoid stress and do not work too hard. She even waited until the age of 117 before giving up smoking.

The conference participants, including 160 foreigners, clearly wanted something more austere. One of the organisers, Zeng Guang, a portly 44- year-old who the rest of the time is in "building materials import-export", gave his prescription: "Taiji boxing, static Qigong for relaxation, and therapeutic self-massage for the acupoints," he told me.

Dong Nianli, a more respectable 73 years, who is the vice-chairman of China's (three-year-old) Global Research Centre for Health and Longevity and (more encouragingly) president of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, firmly agreed. "With the best combination of these three ways, you will live up to 100 years for certain," he said firmly.

Moreover, the conference pamphlet bore the distinctive calligraphy of China's paramount leader, 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping. "Taiji boxing is good," it read. And would Mr Deng be attending? "He has not time," said Mr Zeng.

But, with nine years to go before his century, Mr Deng should be aware that Taiji alone is not enough, according to Mr Dong. "You must go to bed early and get up early. Don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't overeat. Select suitable exercise," he said. And sex? "According to scientists, people until 80 have sex. But not too much. Once a week is best. Too much will hurt your health."

Extensive research, based on China's 1990 census returns, was read to the audience with due reverence. China had 6,434 people over the age of 100, and the oldest was 136 (apologies to Mme Calment). Some two-thirds are vegetarian, "love to participate in labour and exercises" and "are of open character"; all "have a regular life".

For dissolute readers, the good news is that only two-fifths were teetotal, and barely a third practiced Taiji boxing. Only 11.21 per cent "drank tea properly", whatever that means.

But where was the proof? Where were those sprightly 100-year-olds we had been promised? "They did not come," admitted Mr Dong. It was not explained why. The oldest person who did attend was Liu Zhaomiao, 85, from Shandong province, who said he had practiced the Dao brand of shadow boxing for 70 years and sleeps from 9pm to 4am. He was furious that the organisers had not asked him to demonstrate his martial arts skills during the closing ceremony and wanted us to heckle for his turn. Would he live to 100? "With the practice of Dao, yes!"

Teresa Poole