Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Secret of Longevity

◎ Ji Xianlin

Approaching ninety, I’m really old. People often ask me for advice on how to keep fit and live a long life.

The answer I would give is, “The best way to keep fit is by making no efforts towards it.”

That sounds profound, but is in fact very simple. Two friends of mine put in great efforts to keep in good health. They spent at least two hours per day doing physical exercise. Cao Cao[1] says in one of his poems like this:

Cup to cup calls for song,
Man’s life—how long?

Few people live to be 100. Two hours per day during one’s lifetime—what a tremendous amount of time it would add up to!And what a lot could be done with that much time!It would have been all right though if my two friends’ physical exercise had really helped. But fact is, one of the two has passed away before me and the other now never shows up, being confined to bed with illness.

I’m known to all for having initiated three Nos, namely, no exercising, no picky eating, no grumbling.

My three Nos, however, are apt to be misunderstood. So I need to take this opportunity to make an explanation. Exercise, if moderate, is all right, but I disapprove of overdoing it. One who overrates physical training while dreaming of living a long life must be mentally unbalanced. He should learn to let things take their own course.

As to picky eating, I often find people barely over forty becoming very choosy about food. They abstain from eating egg yolks and tripe. They behave gingerly at table as if treading on thin ice. The embarrassment they show cannot but evoke laughter from all. Acting with such a mentality, they can only end up in defeating their own purpose of increased longevity.

To my mind, the last of the three Nos, i. e. , avoid grumbling under any circumstances, is the most important. Be broad-minded, optimistic and cheerful, and you will be able to eat with a good appetite and enjoy a sound sleep. When you are faced with problems, try every means to solve them. When you meet with difficulties, do your best to overcome them. Neither fret over trifles, nor take an attitude of cynical indifference towards life. That’s the way to be long-lived.

One more important point: According to my personal experience of the past eighty years or so, one should put his brain to frequent use instead of letting it stay idle. The result of experiments made by some foreign scientists has shown that frequent use of the brain leads to longevity instead of doing harm to it as people used to believe. Man’s aging is mainly caused by the death of cerebral cells. However, though the cerebral cells of middle-aged and elderly people keep dying every day, man uses up in his lifetime only one fourth of the total cerebral cells, and new cerebral cells will, under normal conditions, keep growing up daily. As long as you use your head regularly, dead cerebral cells will always be outnumbered by new ones. Regular use of the head will ensure the normal circulation of cerebral blood and our control of the whole bodily function through its coordination.

I used to urge, “Never have an idle head!” And I myself have acted accordingly. Some people have consequently saddled me with the epithets: “agile like a swallow” and “walking as if on wings.” They are exaggerating to be sure, but it’s true that I’m in better health than people of the same age. The above has come of plain intuition, without any scientific basis.

So mush for my “secret of longevity”.

[1] Cao Cao(formerly translated as Ts’ao Ts’ao, 155-220), military strategist, statesman and writer during the Three Kingdoms.