When a Chinese herbalist named Li Ching-Yuen died in 1933, his obituary appeared in newspapers around the world. He claimed that he was 197 years old. But was he really that old? In 1930, when Li said he was 194, Professor Wu Chung-chief, dean of the department of Education in Minkuo University, decided to investigate Li’s claim. What he discovered was shocking.
Li was not born in 1736. He was actually born—according to government records—in 1677, making him 256 years old at the time of his death. He also found out that the Imperial Chinese Government had congratulated him on his 150th and 200th birthday.
We might wonder how Li could’ve forgotten his birthday, but I guess if you’re over 200 years old a lapse of memory is probably more likely than not.
Li attributed his longevity to peace of mind and that it was his belief that everyone could live at least a century by attaining inward calm. “Keep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, sleep like a dog.”
A correspondent of The New York Times wrote in 1928 that many of the oldest men in Li’s neighborhood asserted their grandfathers knew him as boys and that he was then a grown man.
According to the generally accepted tales told in his province. Li was able to read and write as a child, and by his tenth birthday had traveled in Kansu, Shansi, Tibet, Annam, Siam and Manchuria gathering herbs. For the first hundred years he continued at this occupation. Then he switched to selling herbs gathered by others.
According to one version of Li’s married life, he outlived 23 wives and was living with his 24th a woman ‘of 60’ at the time of his death. Another account, which in 1928 credited him with 180 living descendants, comprising eleven generations, recorded only fourteen marriages. This second authority said his eyesight was good; also, that the finger nails of his right hand were very long, “and long for a Chinese might mean longer than any finger nails ever dreamed of in the United States.”
So how well did Li age? The Times correspondent wrote that “many who have seen him recently declare that his facial appearance is no different from that of persons two centuries his junior.”