Hoaxes & Rumors

Did the world’s oldest man live to be 256 years old?

Did the world’s oldest man live to be 256 years old?
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Press reports in 1933 claimed that a Chinese man named Li Ching-Yuen had died at the age of either 197 or 256. Is this story real or fake?

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The claim that this man reached the age of 256 (or 197) is believed to be false.

The traditional story of Li Ching-Yuen holds that he was born in 1677 or 1736 (he claimed the latter) and died in 1933, making him either 197 or 256 years old at the time of his death. Late in the man’s life, the public grew increasingly interested in his extraordinary lifespan. He reportedly had 23 wives and over 200 children. His interest included martial arts and herbalism. His secret to a long life was to “Keep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, sleep like a dog.”

Li-ching-Yuen

Early Reports

A few years before Li Ching-Yuen’s death, the following news article appeared in the Pittsburgh Press on October 2, 1929.

Man, 252 Years Old, Found Residing in Rural China
Reported to Have Discovered Fountain of Youth – Has Outlived 23 Wives.

by D.C. Bess
United Press Staff Writer

Peiping, Oct 2 – The world’s oldest man, who, if his given age is correct, would antedate the American republic by almost a century, has been found in Kaihsien, a town in Southern Szechwan province, in the opinion of Professor Wu Chung-Chieh, dean of the department of education at Minkuo University here.

The man in question is Li Ching-Yung. Dynastic records verify to the professor’s satisfaction that Li is now in his two hundred and fifty-second year, or more than one-fourth as old as Methuselah, the old man of the Bible who lived 969 years.

The professor is interested especially in Li because he is reported to have found a “fountain of youth” in the shape of medicinal plants growing on the hills of Yunnan and Kweichow. Dr. Wu has gone to Szechwan province to teach and is urging the patriarch to visit Peiping, so that the secret of his longevity can be investigated.

Professor Wu was told that Li has survived 23 wives, and is now living with his twenty-fourth, who is a mere 60 years of age.

Li Ching-Yun, according to professor…. has records to show he was born in 1677, during the reign of the emperor Kang Hai, the second emperor of the Manchu dynasty. He was a druggist in his youth, and during his research for medicinal plants on the mountains of Yunnan, discovered the herbs which have so remarkably prolonged his life.

When Li attained the age of 100 years, in 1777, his “old age” was considered remarkable, and the provincial authorities petitioned the imperial government for an appropriate recognition. The government at Peking consented, and it is declared the order for this action is contained in the dynastic records.

But Li kept on living, the reports go, and astonished his neighborhood by reaching his two hundredth year. The imperial government was surprised to get a petition urging further recognition and, according to Professor Wu, verified the old man’s great age in the records.

Now the residents of Kaisien report Li seems well on his way to his three hundredth year without showing signs of senility. Last spring, Gen. Yang Sen, the leading militarist in Szechwan, invited Li to a banquet in his honor.

Professor Wu understands that Li speaks readily concerning events in his life, and has no trouble recalling incidents which occurred more than 150 years ago.

The following month, in a blurb posted in the The Reading Eagle on November 21, 1929, the man’s age was again reported. While the story touches on the same details as reported the prior month, the writer concluded that evidence was lacking. “The story is vouched for as true by university officials, but a little more corroboration would be helpful.”

In 1933 an obituary was published in the New York Times. It read, in part:

Li Ching-yun, a resident of Kaihsien, in the Province of Szechwan, who contended that he was one of the world’s oldest men, and said he was born in 1736 — which would make him 197 years old — died today.

A Chinese dispatch from Chung-king telling of Mr. Li’s death said he attributed his longevity to peace of mind and that it was his belief every one could live at least a century by attaining inward calm.

In 1977, the man’s age was mentioned in an “Ask Andy” column. When asked how old the world’s oldest man was, the columnist wrote, “There appears to be a wide stretch of area between old age information reported to be true and information that can actually be documented and proven correct. For example, there was a report of Peking, China, in 1933 reporting the death of a man who was 256 years of age. There were people to swear that this was his true age, but no absolute proof could be found.”

A 2011 report entitled “Typologies of Extreme Longevity Myths” refers to the claim of 256 years “fantastical.” It also pointed out that the number chosen was a multiple of 8, which is considered good luck in China.

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Despite cultural and mythological tales of humans living to extreme ages, or such concepts as the fountain of youth, the oldest verified age which a human has reached is 122, by that of Jean Calment. The oldest verified age reached by a man was 116 in the case of Jiroemon Kimura.

Explanations

The most common theory to explain this man’s claim to such extreme age is that he may have assumed the identity of an older family member or perhaps someone of the same name.

Assuming the identity of an older family member or someone of the same name has been suggested in the case of Shigechiyo Izumi, a Japanese man who originally convinced Guinness World Records that he had reached the age of 120. His “verified” age was later retracted and it was speculated that Izumi had assumed the identity of a much older brother.

An estimated 108 billion humans have ever lived, and there is currently no evidence that anyone has ever reached half the age of 256 reportedly achieved by this man.

It is doubtful that Li’s age will ever be verified (or refuted) to the satisfaction of modern researchers, as the information needed for such verification – such as a birth record – simply doesn’t exist.

Sources

  • How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth? (Carl Haub, Population Reference Bureau: October 2011)
  • An Old Timer Sure Enough (The Reading Eagle. November 21, 1929)
  •  Li Ching-Yun Dead; Gave His Age as 197 (The New York Times. May 6, 1933)
  • Age claims don’t hold up: Ask Andy (Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon: March 18, 1977)
  • Oldest People (Wikipedia)

Updated May 14, 2016
Originally published July 2013

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