Watching the world go by: portrait of a centenarian

by Lijia Macleod

When she was in her 70s, Xing Guizhen brushed aside the idea of false teeth. “There’s no need,” she declared. “I’m going to die in a few days.”

When she was in her 80s, she rejected her duaghter’s urgings again, for the same reason. Now, well past her 100th birthday, Granny Xing is still alive and well, and still without any teeth, while daughter Bao Lianying, in her 70s, long ago acquired a false set. Despite her sunken cheeks and white hair, the small, slimly built grandmother does not look that old — in fact, the way she licks her lips is almost childlike.

Xing Guizhen was born into a farming family in Haiyan County, in eastern China’s Shandong Province, in June 1899. She can’t remember how many siblings she had, but at least one younger sister, now close to 100 herself, still lives in the same village. While most of Xing’s childhood memories have blurred, the ordeal of foot-binding stands out. When her daughter says the white cloth used to bind the feet was 3 chi long, Granny immediately corrects her: “It was 4 chi!”

The nightmare began for her at the age of 6, when the cloth not only bound her feet rigid, leaving no space for growth, but also forced the four small toes inward. In the early days, to hasten the process, a piece of wood was inserted into the cloth shoes. Each step caused incredible pain as the tiny feet bled and rotted inside the bandage. Every little girl of that time had to endure this torment. Despite their cries and screams, for the girls’ own sake the parents felt they had no choice but to carry out this cruel, feudal, centuries-old practice.

“No one would marry me if I had ‘big feet.’ ” Xing says with a big toothless smile. “The smaller, the better!”

Today, her severely deformed feet are just 16.5 cm long.

When she was 19, it was arranged that she would marry a farmer named Bao from the neighboring village, whom she had never met. Luckily, he turned out to be a kind and honest type who helped her to settle down in his large extended family. Still, the inconvenience of bound feet never served as an excuse to escape the household’s chores. Xing had slaved in her parents’ home; now she slaved for her parents-in-law. At one point, she was cooking daily for about 20 people. Daughter Lianying proudly recalls how capable her mother was; she had to make everything herself, from fancy embroidered shoes to wine made from red sorghum.

Lianying is Xing’s only surviving child. Two of her siblings died in infancy, a commonplace tragedy in rural China at the time, while her elder sister hanged herself shortly after she was forced to marry a man she didn’t like. Lianying, grief-stricken, fell ill after this incident, but there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it: Women had so little say in important matters like marriage. Xing suffered another blow when her husband died at the age of 49. So when Lianying went to Beijing to join her husband, who was originally from the capital, she invited her mother to stay with them.

Reluctant to give up her familiar country life, Xing decided to come to Beijing in 1957 “just to have a look”; it was right before the Great Leap Forward movement began. But after “idle” people were compelled to join the workforce, Lianying became a worker at the factory run by the neighborhood committee and Granny stayed on to look after her three granddaughters. She never left Beijing. Now, all three granddaughters have married and moved out, leaving Granny with their aged parents in a courtyard house in Dongsi that they share with half a dozen other families.

Xing is in remarkable shape for a 100-year-old. Her eyes and ears may not work as well as they once did, and her memory plays tricks with her — she often remembers events from long ago better than those of later years — but she still gets around by herself, refusing to use a walking stick. A dark line on the wall reveals where she finds support.

The past 100 years have seen dramatic changes in China, from the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But few of them seem to have greatly affected Xing’s life. Perhaps because she always stayed at home, her family was her entire world. Comparing the new society with the old, she mentions only one key change: “Nowadays, women can go everywhere.” Trapped behind closed doors in a rural village, she barely noticed the Japanese occupation. She only became aware of the foreign invaders when her husband had a hair-raising encounter with a Japanese soldier who ordered him to carry supplies to the county seat on his donkey. When night fell, he managed to flee back home. Xing’s brother-in-law actually made money selling Japanese silk or cotton stockings to rich Chinese in Dalian. Lianying was given a pair when she got married. Lacking any opportunity for wearing such a fancy garment as a Western-style dress, Granny used the stockings as a belt to tie up her padded trousers.

Xing’s immediate family was fortunate in that none of them was attacked during the series of political changes that swept across the country after the revolution. Hardly comprehending what was going on, she went along with whatever people were expected to do, such as attending meetings and class-struggle sessions organized by the neighborhood committee. Naturally, she was illiterate. Granddaughter Tan Guiqing’s most vivid memory during the Cultural Revolution is of Granny’s daily routine after breakfast — bowing deeply three times to a large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong hung up in their yard, while murmuring in her strong Shandong accent, “Long Live Chairman Mao!”

Xing never expected to outlive her beloved Great Leader. When asked the secret of her longevity, her family has no answers, apart from citing inherited long-life genes. Xing does not follow any specific diet, although she swears by a drink made from extract of malt and milk called “mairujing.” She never does any exercise. But she does follow a set routine — “rest after sundown and rise when the sun comes up,” an old habit brought from the countryside. In fact, despite having lived in the city for so many years, she sometimes thinks she still lives in her old village. Almost every night, she shouts out to her daughter, “Don’t forget to shut the henhouse door!” She cannot sleep until Lianying answers, “Will do!” After getting up at 5 each morning, she starts the day with a hot cup of mairujing and then wanders out to the front gate of the courtyard to watch the world go by.

Xing credits her family for taking good care of her. All three granddaughters and their families come back to see her frequently, each bearing a tin of mairujing. “Granny was so good to us during the difficult days that she would starve herself in order to give us things to eat,” says Tan Guiqing. Guiqing thinks Xing’s vigor keeps her going. She is so active she seems unable to sit quietly in one place for more than two minutes, moving from bed to sofa or venturing out into the yard. When seated, she would study my necklace or touch my big shoes. Only five years ago, she still made padded jackets by hand for her great-grandchildren. Even now, she washes her own underclothes.

While we talked, she showed off her white inner vest. “Clean or not?” she asked impishly. Told it was indeed clean, she let a childlike smile blossom on her wrinkled cheeks. A person with a young heart can never be called old.