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Li Ching-Yuen: An Extraordinary Lifespan of 256 Years, or A Hoax?

BY Dipanjana Mukherjee May 22, 2020

Li Ching-Yuen or Li Ching-Yun was a Chinese herbalist, tactical advisor, as well as a trained martial artist. Though he claims to have been born in 1736, there are contradicting records tracing his birth year to 1677. He passed away on 6th May 1933, which implied that Li was either 197 or 256 years of age when he died, both of which are significantly higher than the highest verified ages ever recorded. Most gerontologists have dismissed his claims as a myth since there is no official record of his date of birth. However, his claims have been circulated all over the internet and have grabbed significant public attention.

An extraordinary life

Li Ching-Yuen was extremely skilful and had mastered Qigong, a Chinese art of breath-control and exercise similar to Tai Chi. He spent most of his life in the mountains and was born in Wanxian Sichuan, where he also breathed his last.

It is believed that Li had picked up advanced reading at a very young age, and was extremely well-educated. By the age of ten, he had travelled to several parts of Asia, including Vietnam, Gansu, Tibet, Shanxi, Manchuria, and Thailand, to gather herbs. He went on to be an acclaimed herbalist, and spent a century gathering and selling herbs. He traded in several essential herbs in Oriental medicine, such as wild ginseng, goji berry, lingzhi, gotu kola, he shou wu, and other Chinese herbs. His own diet consisted primarily of such herbs and rice wine.

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In 1749 when Li was around 71 years of age, he supposedly relocated to Kai Xian and joined the army under the provincial Commander- in- Chief Yeuh Jong Chyi. He served as a teacher of martial arts and as a tactical advisor in the army.

In 1926, the Chinese Warlord Wu Peifu invited Li to his residence in Beijing, to know his secret of long life. According to General Yang Sen, Li’s visit to Beijing coincides with the time Li was teaching Beijing University’s Meditation Society. Here, he was invited by the famous author and meditation master, Yin Shi Zi.

In 1927, General Yang Sen of the National Revolutionary Army, invited Li to his residence situated in Wan Xian, Sichuan, where one of Li’s earliest known photographs was taken.

Li Ching-Yuen

Photograph of Li Ching-Yuen taken in 1927. (Wikimedia Commons)

Li is believed to have produced approximately 180 descendants and had 24 wives in his lifetime. When Li died of natural causes on 6th May 1933, in Kai Xian, Sichuan, China, his twenty-fourth wife was only 60 years old. 

General Yang Sen’s account of Li Ching-Yuen

After Li Ching-Yuen’s death, General Yang Sen wrote a report about him titled A Factual Account of the 250 Year-Old Good-Luck Man’ (一个250岁长寿老人的真实记载). In his report, the General outlines the probable timeline of Li’s lifespan. In his report, he describes Li as He has good eyesight and a brisk stride; Li stands seven feet tall, has very long fingernails, and a ruddy complexion.”

According to the General, Li served as a tactical and a topography advisor in the army of General Yu Zhongqi at the age of 51 years. And he retired from his military career at 71 and went to back to his profession as a herbalist, gathering herbs in the Snow Mountain in Sichuan province.

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The secret of a long life

Wu Chung-Chieh, who was a professor at the Chengdu University, had found documents which affirmed that Li had been born in 1677. Owing to his exemplary service in the army, when Li turned 100 years old, the Imperial Government sent him a document congratulating him on his birthday. This was done for Li’s 150th and 200th birthdays as well. According to an article in The New York Times in 1930, Wu found records of the Imperial Chinese Government wishing Li on the latter two of these events.

One of Li’s disciples, Da Liu, a Taijiquan Master recalled Li Ching-Yuen had encountered a 500-year-old hermit in the mountains when he was himself 130 years of age. The hermit taught Li several things, including Baguazhang and Qigong, along with proper breathing instructions, as well as recommendations for an ideal longevity-enhancing diet to be followed. According to Da Liu, Li’s advanced lifespan was because “he performed the exercises every day – regularly, correctly, and with sincerity – for 120 years”. Another one of Li’s pupils said that according to Li, the secret to a long life was tokeep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, walk sprightly like a pigeon and sleep like a dog.” An article in The Evening Independent mentioned that Li had apparently found a magical herb when he was in the Yunan Mountains that prevented him from going old.

Li Ching-Yuen’s longevity: is it a Hoax?

However, gerontologists have dismissed these claims owing to the fact that no official documents have been found that would verify Li’s claims to such a long life. Even though there is huge confusion regarding the year of his birth, it is highly unlikely that he could have lived for so long.

The longest verified age of a person has been recorded as that of Jeanne Calment, a supercentenarian, born in February 1875, in Arles, France. Calment had lived for 122 years and 164 days when she finally passed away on 4th August 1997, at Arles. According to records, Jeanne Calment outlived both her daughter, Yvonne, as well as her grandson.

Another recorded supercentenarian is Jiroemon Kimura, a Japanese man who was born in April 1897. He died in June 2013 and was 116 years and 54 days old. Kane Tanaka, yet another Japanese man, is a supercentenarian who is still alive at the age of 117 and was born in 1903.

Although it is possible that Li Ching-Yuen lived a long life⁠—perhaps longer than the longest recorded person. However, it is unlikely that he made it anywhere close to 256.

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