Searching for Luo Meizhen

The little boy took Lily’s sleeve and led us back through a dark hallway. It opened up onto a sparsely furnished room that contained only a wooden bed and table. Luo Meizhen was sitting there, illuminated by a solitary beam of dust-speckled sunlight. She was impossibly ancient and impossibly small and to be honest… perhaps a little difficult to look at. 

Introductions were made and Ms. Luo, with chopsticks in her right hand, blocked out the sun as she gave me a cursory up and down glance. Returning her attention to a bowl of pork and rice, she loaded the chopsticks and in a surprisingly strong and clear voice, simply said… “No.”

After an arduous trek to meet her, the oldest woman in the world had just told me there would be no interview and no photographs. My heart sank.

Over the previous 3 days my wife and I had spent 13 hours travelling by bus through one of the longest and heaviest rainstorms I can ever remember. Seriously, we thought of stopping and getting off twice. Once we arrived in Bama, we waited two more days for the weather to clear, allowing us to travel another two hours over the rutted, muddy road that eventually took us to tiny Bamai Village. All of it, just to meet Luo Meizhen.

I’d come to Bama County to see if I could maybe shed some light on why nearly 90 people in this one remote county in rural Guangxi Province, were over the age of 100. In the end I didn’t find out much about the why, but I did meet some remarkable people. I was able to spend time with a number of centenarians and locals of all ages during our week there, but meeting Ms. Luo had been the goal. She was the reason I’d travelled so far and waited so long. That’s because Luo Meizhen was quite possibly the oldest living person - ever.

Luo claims to have been born in September of 1885, but "proof" of her age is practically impossible to verify. Birth certificates didn't became commonplace in this area until after the 1949 Communist takeover. A faded copy of her state issued identity card is the only evidence that Luo is the age she says she is. If you haven’t yet done the math, Luo Meizhen says she is 127 years old.

She was a bit cranky the day when we met, as I said, initially refusing to let me take any photographs. We decided to just try and talk for a while but even talking was an exercise in patience. Ms. Luo is a member of the Yao Nationality and speaks almost no Mandarin. Every syllable of our conversation went from me, to my Chinese wife Lilly, to a great-grandson, to a daughter-in-law, to Ms. Luo... and then back.

The old woman took my hand at one point and then quickly threw it aside, and giggling like a school girl she loudly proclaimed that the foreigner was very fat! Her hands were the size of a small child’s, bony and as delicate as a sparrow. The skin was paper-thin but surprisingly warm. After a while Ms. Luo warmed up to me and while playfully slapping at my legs; she consented to letting me take a few shots.

I found out later that over the just finished two-week Chinese New Year holiday, she'd endured many visitors and was tiring of all the attention. So many visitors says a lot about her appeal, especially considering the trek to get there. Bama County is in the middle of nowhere... Luo Meizhen lives on the outskirts of nowhere. If Luo really is 127 she's not only the world's oldest living person &mdash she's the world's oldest person ever recorded. The previous record-holder, Jeannie Calment of France, died in 1997 at the age of 122.

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