Long Lives Well Lived #1/4 ( By TIME - jun. 14. 2003 )

Huang Maliang, who is 104 years old, keeps a coffin in her house. Her two-year-old great-great-grandson plays on it, and Huang herself uses it as a rest stop on her slow journeys from the open-pit fire in the back of her house to the front porch. Other family members―seven Huangs, from five generations―share the huge, mud-brick dwelling. They aren't in the least troubled by the sight of the matriarch sitting atop the rough wooden box. And anyway, Huang says, lightly tapping the cover with her fingernails, "this one isn't for me. This is for my youngest son."

The son in question, a lithe 78-year-old, bounds by in pursuit of a fleeing toddler. Having caught his prey and carefully wiped away a smear of dirt from the child's face, he glances up at the coffin. "Oh, that," he says. "Yes, that one's mine. Mom's had hers for 44 years, but it's up at my brother's house. We use them for storing grain."

Although they live with these constant reminders of their own mortality, the Huangs aren't particularly morbid. In the tiny hamlet of Pinghan, nestled deep among a stand of limestone hills in a remote region of southwestern China, locals honor an old, national tradition of buying a coffin at the age of 61. Most of the locals get many decades of workaday use out of their sarcophagi before pressing them into service as eternal resting places. That's because the people of Pinghan and surrounding Bama county, located 250 kilometers northwest of Nanning in Guangxi province, are exceptionally long-lived. The county (pop. 238,000) has more than 74 centenarians and 237 residents who have reached their 90s. That's one of the highest per-capita concentrations of old-timers in the world, according to Chen Jinchao, a surgeon who for the past 10 years has run the Guangxi Bama Long Life Research Institute.

You won't find the county in the Guinness Book of Records because detailed official birth records only began to be kept there after 1949. But Bama is nonetheless renowned as a place where the sight of sprightly centenarians is no rarity. Elsewhere in Asia there are other, similarly fabled pockets of longevity, where, for reasons not fully understood, life expectancy exceeds global norms by wide margins.

The Japanese, of course, live unusually long lives―reaching an average of 81.6 years. By comparison, in the U.S. the average life expectancy in 2002 was 77.1 and only 74.5 for men, about the same as Cuba's. Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in the Japanese archipelago, boasts the longest-lived population on the planet, with an average life expectancy of 81.8. Meanwhile, Japan is currently home to the world's oldest man (Yukichi Chuganji, 113) and woman (Kamato Hongo, 115).

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