Before they built the road in 2007 we didn’t have many outsiders come our way,’ says Huang Songmo, a 77-year-old ethnic Zhuang villager who now helps manage The Source of Life Good Health Hotel with his son Huang Huanhong. The family opened the riverside guesthouse in 2010 to take advantage of the influx of visitors to their hitherto obscure home in Bama County.
The Huang family, which, like every other Huang in the village (everyone is surnamed Huang) live unusually long lives and are exemplary of what attracts visitors to Bama. It is believed they posses the key to longevity.
LIVING THROUGH HISTORY
In the corner of the hotel’s rustic lobby, which doubles as the family living quarters, Huang Ma Songmo sits alone, quietly eating her breakfast; her ancient hands still comfortably wielding chopsticks. I ask Songmo if he might translate from the Zhuang language a few questions for his mother.
‘When were you born?’ I ask.
‘That would make her 112 years old?’
‘Yes, but she’s not the eldest, there’s a family who claim their grandpa is 117,’ my friend Zhang Xingyuan says.
‘So they were born at the end of the Qing dynasty?’
‘During the reign of Guangxu,’ confirms Zhang.
‘If that’s the case,’ I say, reciting a crash course in Chinese modern history, ‘great-great-grandma Huang and company have lived through the 1911 revolution that toppled the last Qing emperor, the Nationalist-era where much of the country fell under warlord factions, the invasion of Japan, the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists, Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and China’s rapid post-90s boom and return to the world stage.’
‘This is true,’ explains Songmo, ‘but not much of this affected us here in Bama. The only question my mother ever asked was, “who is the emperor now?”’
FAR AND AWAY
‘The mountains are high and the emperor is far away’ is a saying still in common parlance in the south of China, especially where getting away with something unlawful is concerned. But it seems to ring true in a different sense for the residents of Bama, who, blockaded from the world by encircling mountains, have persisted much as their ancestors have for centuries. This way-of-life has nurtured five people claiming to be over 100 in this village alone. And even if we assume their ages have been inflated, the sight of senior citizens working the fields is testament to the healthy lives lived in Bama.
Despite recently becoming hoteliers, the family Huang maintains an ancestral shrine to show that its ties with the past remain stronger than any link to a grander vision of China. There are no Chairman Mao portraits or China Dream posters here.
‘We often have five generations dining together,’ adds Songmo’s son Huanhong, expressing how staid life persists in Bama. Five generations under one roof is an ancient Confucian ideal, but it is a benchmark seldom reached in today’s China, with youngsters fleeing the countryside in their droves to try and better their lot on the industrial East Coast.
Chinese civilisation evolved thousands of miles from Bama, around the Yellow River, along the flat, dry plains of north China. Under emperor Qin Shi Huang (260 to 210BC) – world-renowned for his Terracotta Army – China coalesced into one nation, bound by a common script, standardised weights and measures, and a mythical concept of a celestial patronage. Down the ages, the Heavenly Kingdom would periodically fragment, only to reemerge under a new ruling family ever keen to expand the imperial realm. Isolated tribes, dubbed ‘nationalities’ by Communist ethnologists, were either assimilated or pushed to remote areas where they subsisted in relative isolation. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in mountainous Guangxi.
The arresting karst mountain landscape of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to give its official, if verbose title, has long inspired the Chinese. Even today the 20 yuan note bears a picture of Guangxi’s iconic camel-hump hills framing a fisherman boating down the River Li on a bamboo raft. Yet while the region has been immortalised in verse, on canvas (and on the People’s Money), the Han Chinese have never truly pacified this ancient frontier zone. Like the jagged, mist-enshrouded mountains, the southern border indistinctly blends with Southeast Asia.
However, things are now changing. With chronic wealth disparity high on the political agenda, the ancient proverb ‘to relieve poverty, first build a road’ has almost become doctrinal. With new roads finally infiltrating this land of myth, more and more minority peoples, including the Zhuang and Yao of Bama County, are abandoning their pastoral lives for the neon lights of the city.
Regional diversity is evident everywhere on the streets of Nanning, the provincial capital and principle transport hub. The Romanisation of Chinese characters on street signs is not scripted to represent Mandarin, but Vahcuengh – the language of the Zhuang nationality, Guangxi’s largest minority group. Wrestling for space on the city’s dusty, overcrowded streets, one is exposed to a colourful catalogue of faces, costumes and languages, while shops and street hawkers sell every oddity and exoticism imaginable, from ornamental tortoise shells to hand-spun fabrics.
Naturally, Bama produce is in hot demand.
‘Drink this and you’ll live forever!’ a shopkeeper tells me, assuredly recommending some pricey Bama rice wine. Other vendors echo the sentiment: ‘Bama produce is very special… It can cure illness… that’s why it’s expensive… buy some grapes for your family…’
This situation perhaps reflects how market reforms have radically altered China. Nowadays, if you’ve got something to sell, and a story to sell it with, you can make a few yuan. Though China’s leaders, like the emperors of old, still prefer centralised economic planning, this kind of imperial stewardship is generally reserved for big infrastructure projects like the high-speed rail network, which connected with Guangxi in 2014.
On a micro level, Chinese capital can flow in strange and unexpected directions. This can be said not just of Bama’s agricultural produce, but for Bama itself. For the land that nurtures a disproportionate amount of centenarians is alluring a uniquely modern Chinese customer, namely, the smog refugee.
‘The pollution in Shenyang is terrible, as bad as Beijing’s,’ says Mr Song, a kindly north-easterner with health issues. ‘After I got my treatment I came here to recover. I’ve been here three years. I won’t go back,’ he explains as we walk along the bank of the Panyang River.
Song, and many like him from the coal-reliant north, have established an extensive community-in-exile in and around the ‘Bama Longevity Village’. The lilted accent of northern Chinese carries in the air, with groups of burly northerners getting together to practise Tai Chi, sing songs or just eat dumplings.
‘The environment here is clean, the water mountain-filtered,’ says Song. ‘The climate is warm and we can sweat out toxins.’
As part of their healthy new lifestyles, many of the Longevity Village immigrants take a daily stroll upriver to Pona Village, where an entire grassroots health industry is flourishing. As well as Bama-grown fruit and vegetables, villagers are selling every kind of herb, fungi and root imaginable, each claiming their product has medicinal properties.
This is, of course, Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM), which approaches medical treatment in a holistic way. Some CTM treatments have proved to be highly effective, but there remains much quackery associated with the practice, and the white coats remain cynical.
One common aspect of CTM is equitable to the superfoods craze currently in vogue in the West, whereby magical properties are often awarded to simple, natural produce. The rarer the ingredient, the more mystery surrounds it, an allure complimented by the colourful ethnic Yao and Zhuang villagers who bring the produce down from the mountains.
Despite scientific misgivings, belief remains deep and widespread across China, as is clear as you wade through Bama’s wellbeing bazaar. All around wade sickly visitors hailing from all quarters of the People’s Republic. Some bare a doom-laden expression, suggesting that they’re not in Bama to recover as much as to extend their lifespan as much as possible.
To this end Pona feels like a veritable village of the damned, made all the more melancholy because those who probably won’t reach their anticipated life expectancy are rubbing shoulders with those who generally exceed it by a few decades. Attracted by this community of the afflicted, industrious entrepreneurs hawk life-improvement devices, like Tang Yu, who is selling water filtration units. ‘It will make your water as clean as Bama’s,’ his sales-pitch goes.
It’s understandable why many Chinese should feel paranoid. Hardly a month goes by without a food safety scandal. The widespread media exposure of tainted baby milk powder, exploding watermelons, and corrupted tofu, not to mention the polluted waterways and smoggy skies visible throughout the country, logically lead many to blame the environment for their malaise.
China’s pollution and hygiene problems have also nurtured a veritable culture of hypochondria. Mrs Wang, originally from Sichuan province, tells me, ‘I daren’t sit down or touch things. I’m allergic to everything.’ She then reels-off a long list of things one should and shouldn’t eat. Yet her rosy cheeks, and casual poise, suggest she is less sick than scared, and a true believer in the otherworldly power of Bama. ‘The secret is the rocks here,’ she confides in me, showing-off a small stone collection that she carries everywhere to protect her from disease.
The towering mounds that make Guangxi’s landscape so seductive are formed from limestone, a soft rock that slowly dissolves in water. The region is festooned with caves and underground rivers, with Bama no exception.
Further upriver we visit Baimo Cave. After the headline-making torrential rains of the previous night, our visit provides insight into how the land has been shaped, with water pouring through the crevices in the craggy outcroppings.
Many credit mountain-filtered water as Bama’s key to longevity. But others, like Mrs Wang, go one stage further, as my friend Zhang Xingyuan explains when I point out several elderly folk seemingly just hanging-out in the cave. ‘They buy monthly passes and spend time on the rocks in the cave because they believe it helps them.’
The next day Zhang drives me to a locally revered scenic spot to take in the lay of the land. En route we pass teams of road builders, and much of the tarmac we tread is freshly laid.
‘Before they constructed roads there was just a gravel track. Few villagers would have gone as far as Nanning, never mind Beijing,’ says Zhang.
As I overlook Bama’s other major waterway, the snaking Ming River, which has burst its banks after a night of rain, I see how dynamic and rich the land here is, and how its topology, and occasionally extreme climate, has managed to set it apart from the world for so long. This part of China is a garden, booby-trapped with natural perils. Yet through the mountains, the outside world is fast encroaching. Tourist development is seldom sensitive in China, and I hear talk of golf courses, an airport, time-share cottages and McMansions to come.
Therefore the question is simply; how quickly will the outside undermine what has fostered such longevity? For as one insightful friend put it, ‘It’s not the rocks that cultivate longevity in Bama, it’s just that they don’t have KFC.’
Longevity-obsessed Qin Shi Huang, who first pushed China into the lands of The Hundred Yue (as Guangxi was then known) died seeking immortality. His dynasty lasted less than a few years after him. In many ways the First Emperor was exemplary of a Chinese culture-trait ever bent on perpetuity. But the short-lived State of Qin expresses that China is a place where nothing lasts forever. Therefore, even though Bama’s residents live to a ripe old age, and have done for eons, it would seem logical to suggest that the roads bringing in the longevity pilgrims will gradually erode the magic of the area, a magic that is less ethereal and more organic than China’s mythmakers would care to admit.
But for the moment at least, Bama retains its natural mystique, and enough seriously old people to muster an air of magic as well.
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.