The son in question, a lithe 78-year-old, bounds by in pursuit of a fleeing toddler. Having caught his prey and carefully wiped away a smear of dirt from the child's face, he glances up at the coffin. "Oh, that," he says. "Yes, that one's mine. Mom's had hers for 44 years, but it's up at my brother's house. We use them for storing grain."
Although they live with these constant reminders of their own mortality, the Huangs aren't particularly morbid. In the tiny hamlet of Pinghan, nestled deep among a stand of limestone hills in a remote region of southwestern China, locals honor an old, national tradition of buying a coffin at the age of 61. Most of the locals get many decades of workaday use out of their sarcophagi before pressing them into service as eternal resting places. That's because the people of Pinghan and surrounding Bama county, located 250 kilometers northwest of Nanning in Guangxi province, are exceptionally long-lived. The county (pop. 238,000) has more than 74 centenarians and 237 residents who have reached their 90s. That's one of the highest per-capita concentrations of old-timers in the world, according to Chen Jinchao, a surgeon who for the past 10 years has run the Guangxi Bama Long Life Research Institute.
The Japanese, of course, live unusually long livesreaching an average of 81.6 years. By comparison, in the U.S. the average life expectancy in 2002 was 77.1 and only 74.5 for men, about the same as Cuba's. Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in the Japanese archipelago, boasts the longest-lived population on the planet, with an average life expectancy of 81.8. Meanwhile, Japan is currently home to the world's oldest man (Yukichi Chuganji, 113) and woman (Kamato Hongo, 115).
At Asia's other extreme, the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 43.1 years. But in neighboring Pakistan there is the geriatric oasis of the Hunza Valley. High in the country's northern mountains, it's a place of such pristine beauty and with such a reputation for fostering longevity that author James Hilton was inspired by a visit there to write Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel about an isolated valley called Shangri-La whose residents lived for hundreds of years. Another death-defying region, currently being studied by gerontologists, is a cluster of villages in Sunchang county located in South Korea's mountainous southwest, where some local farmers continue to work the fields until they are well into their 90s.
Is it something in the water? Why do some communities, located in disparate places and harboring very different cultures, seem to be built atop a fountain of youth? Scientific efforts to uncover the secrets behind these mysterious, mini Shangri-Las have varied enormously in scope, ranging from a sporadic, amateur attempt by a busy general practitioner in the Hunza Valley to a quarter-century study in Okinawa during which researchers carefully amassed and analyzed data on everything from eating habits to the preferred hobbies of the oldest of the old (they enjoy playing the Okinawan three-string sanshin and singing traditional folk songs). There are tantalizing consistencies in research findings, offering priceless clues to aspiring centenarians on what it takes to live a long and healthy life.
You've heard some of the secrets of Asia's most senior citizens before (probably from your mother): eschew an excess of meat, eat your vegetables and get plenty of exercise. Other lessons from their lives are downright depressing, particularly for gastronomes who regard Asia as a place where one lives to eat rather than the reverse. For example, it's best to eat only until you are hara hachi bu, or "8 parts out of 10 full," as the Okinawan phrase puts it. An old wives' tale, perhaps, but scientific evidence has been steadily mounting for years that gives credence to this simple adage. A daily diet restricted to between half and three-quarters of the 2,100 calories recommended by the U.S. government appears to boost health in humans, and an equivalent reduction has extended the lives of lab rats.