Huang Majian, 105, is a tourist attraction. People take so many pictures of her that sometimes she just has to yawn



Many residents of the rural region of Bama in southern China live to be more than 100 years old. Now people from all over the world are moving there in order to try to lengthen their lives

Huang Majian, 105 years old, is holding a red envelope full of banknotes in her hand and giving the thumbs-up sign. She yawns and then smiles and says to us, “Let’s take a picture together!” The photographer standing nearby makes sure the bas-relief with the Chinese characters for “longevity” can be seen in the background. The photographer is actually Huang’s grandson. Tourists pay money to take pictures with Huang. They give her the money in the traditional Chinese way—in a hongbao, which is a red envelope.

Huang Majian is the youngest of the three individuals in the village of Bapan who are officially recognized to be older than 100. Bapan is part of the district of Bama in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi. For centuries now, the area has been famous for residents who live to a very old age. The local state-run media claims there are 81 people over 100 years of age in the district, which has a population of 300,000.

The King of Chinese Medicine

The last emperor of China had just been overthrown when Huang Majian was born. In the course of her life in this remote village, Huang has experienced the dissolution of China, the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Civil War, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, China’s uninterrupted economic expansion since the 1990s, and the country’s return to the global stage. However, it wasn’t until her 100th birthday that her life turned dramatic. Since that day her name has been displayed on a red banner that hangs at the entrance to the village, where hordes of noisy tourists pass underneath.

“What’s your fondest memory of your life?” I ask the village’s oldest resident, 113-year-old Huang Makun, who lives in a part of the village so remote that tourists hardly ever see her. Huang’s eyes light up. “Singing folk songs with my beloved when I was young,” she softly replies in the local dialect, which is called Yao. Huang has never learned Mandarin.

On the 11th floor of a hotel that is fittingly called “Longevity” I am woken up in the morning by the sound of a crane at a nearby construction site, where the next hotel is being built. The universal desire to live forever has turned “Longevity Village” into a magnet for tourists, sick people, and senior citizens—all of whom hope their stay will somehow lengthen their life. In other words, longevity has become the village’s most important source of income. Indeed, the Chinese characters for “longevity” are cast into manhole covers, engraved into ceramic tiles on building facades, and mounted on streetlight poles.

Photos of people over 100 are everywhere to be seen. For example, an elegant old man with a white beard adorns a billboard advertisement for condominiums outside a construction site, and portrait photos of old residents line the walls of the recently opened “Longevity Museum.” Among these portraits hangs a painting of Sun Simiao, also known as the “King of Chinese Medicine,” who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries AD— to the age of 101, although some sources report that he died at the age of 141. Sun wrote a book called Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold, which contains recipes for healthy drinks and advice on sex, among other things.

Tradition: Family members bring the paper flowers and liquor for the dead

Minerals in the water

Around ten years ago, the government in the Bama district began creating an industry out of the longevity in the region—and today several million “health tourists” visit Bama every year. Some of these tourists come in large groups. They quickly jump out of their buses, crowd into a house occupied by a centenarian, and then go to a souvenir shop to buy cannabis oil, a local delicacy that’s also supposedly a dietary staple of the centenarians. However, if you ask the over-100 crowd itself, they’ll tell you that they never use cannabis oil—it’s all just a sales promotion. Some visitors stay for months or even years in the hope that their second life will begin in Bapan. Most of these long-term visitors stay in Poyue, which used to be a village of a few hundred people but is now home to nearly 150,000 longevity migrants.

“Things start to quiet down in April, with some people from the northeast heading home because it’s warmer there,” says Dong Chengman, an 82-year-old farmer who’s wearing an old-fashioned pair of glasses. Dong has been here for four months. His friend Dong Haiyan, who recently underwent heart surgery for the second time, has decided to stay longer. Both are from the northwestern province of Qinghai. I meet up with them at a cave called Baimo, which means “hundred devils.” “Every day we walk to this cave and sit down for a bit,” says Dong Chengman. “For me it’s like a vacation, but for him it’s a sanatorium.”

Those looking to lengthen their lives do different things on the 1.5-kilometer route from Poyue to the cave. Two people from Beijing are playing saxophone, for example. One is an IT entrepreneur who describes himself as a “smog refugee.” The other is a leading military officer who has already suffered several strokes. A woman dressed all in white calls into the mountains and listens for the echo, while a man from the city of Chongqing is busy fishing.

These days, visitors come not only from China but also from other countries around the world. Kingso Monago, for example, is a businessman from England who’s playing with his cell phone in a bamboo grove at the moment. Monago is spending his vacation here. He says he’s bewildered by the magical stories that he’s been told since he arrived.

An 89-year-old man from Singapore is walking along the street, his hands buried in the pockets of his denim overalls. “I could barely walk when I came here seven years ago,” he says, “but now my diabetes has disappeared and I’m healthy again.” Mr. Chen prefers not to give us his first name, the reason being that “I haven’t told my doctors in Singapore and Hong Kong that I live here—they’d laugh at me if they knew that.” Chen, however, claims that the minerals in the water and the “geomagnetic fields” in the region do in fact have an effect. “Every time I go to Singapore, I can feel the hundred devils calling me back,” he says in reference to the name of the cave.

Scientists are studying the phenomenon

Not all of the locals are happy about how popular their region has become. Huang Majia is 99 years old—yet another example of the long life expectancy here. She benefits directly from the tourists, because she sells them cucumbers and sweet potatoes at the entrance to the Hundred Devils cave. Nevertheless, she says that she used to live in “a quiet and unspoiled area; no one threw garbage on the ground and no one got sick.” Huang believes the new residents and tourists are destroying exactly the thing that brought them here in the first place. “There won’t be any more people over a 100 here in the next generation,” she says.

She might very well turn out to be right. Yang Ze, Deputy Director of the Institute for Gerontology at Beijing Hospital, has been studying Bama for ten years. Yang has repeatedly visited the region with his team of researchers, who have conducted in-depth interviews with 212 people over 90 in order to gain information about their lifestyles, diet, and family history. Much to their surprise, they found that the main reason for the longevity in the region has to do with natural selection. The region is isolated and contains many mountains—it used to take three days to get here from beyond the hills. “Conditions were rough and there was no medical care available, so the weak died off, while those with good genes survived,” Yang explains. He doesn’t dispute the importance of favorable natural conditions, such as the presence of forests, the ions in the air, the minerals in the water, and the sunshine with comparatively low levels of UV radiation. “Nevertheless, I believe that the role played by these factors has been exaggerated,” says Yang, who then comes to the same conclusion as 99-year-old Huang Majia: “If tourists keep coming here in droves, the whole phenomenon will soon disappear.”

The village authorities in Bapan have now posted signs prohibiting farmers from growing fruit, because the fields have been leased out as sites for the construction of luxury hotels. The hammering and drilling now under way has destroyed the tranquility of this once idyllic village. Five of the eight people over 100 in Bapan have died in the last year—a mortality rate that has never before been experienced in this age group.

Zhu Yinghao

works for National Geographic and GQ. He comes from a Chinese family of physicians. How to live a long life was a much discussed topic when he was growing up

Villages with Centenarians

The Bama district in China is one of several regions in the world with an above-average number of centenarians. All of these rural areas have some factors in common: They are very isolated and have had little to do with the outside world until recently

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

This valley in southern Ecuador benefits from the following favorable factors: Drinking water from the Yamburara and Chamba rivers is rich in valuable minerals; and the villagers mostly eat food they have grown themselves, without the use of pesticides or other foreign substances.

Ogimi, Japan

This village in the northern part of the Okinawa island group in southern Japan is far removed from the hustle and bustle of Japanese cities. Of the 3,200 residents of Ogimi, 13 are women over 100 years old. Their dietary habits follow the traditional principle of hara hachi bu, which means eating until you are around 80 percent full.

Ikaria, Greece

The percentage of people over 90 on this barren Greek island is ten times higher than the European average. The canyons and mountains take their toll on residents physically but also keep them in shape even after they grow old. Locals like to relax by drinking a traditional tea made of herbs whose high antioxidant content is said to reduce stress.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Most of the people on this peninsula live to be more than 90 years old. The drinking water here contains very large amounts of calcium and magnesium. This hard water is said to prevent heart disease and strengthen bone structure.

Campodimele, Italy

People in this small farming village in the low mountain range of the Latium region live 30 years longer than the average Italian. Of the village’s 800 residents, 42 are over 90 and some of them are also over a 100. The villagers grow their own food. They eat very little meat, but a lot of vegetables, as well as cornmeal bread that they bake themselves. In addition, they fry their food with olive oil, which is said to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.