100 and still counting ... the change

By Zhao Ruixue and Zhu Xiaobing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-30 07:39
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Centenarian keeps mind and spirit strong through constant learning

DATELINE - When Zhong Zhaowei handed a customer his change for a pack of cigarettes in his shop one day, he was accused of shortchanging the man.

100 and still counting ... the change
Zhong Zhaowei(middle), a centenarian in Laizhou, Shandong province, showcases his calligraphy skills by writing the Chinese character of shou (longevity) with brush. [China Daily] 

"Grandpa, you gave me the wrong change," the customer yelled. "It should be more than this. You're confused."

"I'm more clear-minded than you think, young man," Zhong said. "Count again."

The young customer did as he was told and realized he had counted his change wrong.

Once again, another resident in Laizhou city, Shandong province, was reminded of the city's famous healthy seniors.

Zhong, who turns 101 this April, is one of the city's 87 centenarians.

The average life span of Laizhou residents is 75.9, or 4.9 years longer than the national average.

The city was also listed among the country's "Top 10 Longevity Cities in 2009".

A peek into Zhong's life sheds some light on how he approaches old age.

Other than running his shop, Zhong's daily routine includes practicing calligraphy and singing Peking Opera.

He tells his family that learning is more important than business, or anything else for that matter.

"My family members are good at studying," Zhong said. "Eight of my grandchildren have bachelor's degrees and one has a doctor's degree in the United States," Zhong said.

There is also a reason behind this emphasis on education: Everyone surnamed Zhong in Laizhou is a descendant of Zi Lu (542-480 BC), one of Confucius' four favorite disciples.

Zi Lu, also known as Zhong You, once served as a high-ranking official in the Dukedom of Wei, which bordered today's Shandong and Henan provinces.

Following in his ancestor's footsteps, Zhong has been an eager learner all his life. At 9, he attended a private school where students learned ancient Chinese and basic math on an abacus.

At least eight years of Chinese education consolidated his writing skills with the brush. At 16, Zhong wrote couplets for fellow villagers. The centenarian can still recite some classics and write couplets for them.

"Many couples invite my father to write couplets and characters of fu (fortune) and xi (happiness) for their wedding. My father is always happy to do that," said Zhong Jikui, 55, the youngest of six children.

"These brushes can't compare with the ones I used in the 1940s, when I kept books for an old private bank," the senior Zhong said.

Bestowed with the virtues of scholarship, the centenarian also showed a knack for business.

In 1949, he and several businessmen founded a lightbulb factory, with Zhong as a major shareholder. In 1956, the factory moved to Jinan, capital of Shandong, as privately-owned enterprises nationwide gradually became State-owned. Zhong stayed in his hometown, working as an accountant, and retired at the age of 76.

He marvels at the progress China has made over the past decades, and still remembers the great famine in the late 1950s.

"From 1958 to 1960, we could only eat leaves of sweet potatoes and grass roots. I would never have imagined the delicious food and well-equipped houses we enjoy today," Zhong said.

A few years ago, Zhong began learning Peking Opera. At his 98th birthday party, he sang an aria from Ganlu Temple, a classic play about Liu Bei of the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280).

"The professional actors we invited were amazed by my father," Zhong Jikui said.

When asked how he maintains good health, Zhong Zhaowei said, smiling: "I seldom argue with people. I believe things have their own ways to develop."

Another one of his secrets to healthy living is walking. Until his 96th birthday, Zhong regularly walked 5 km to visit a daughter living in another village.

Similarly, running the shop also keeps his mind busy. He uses the small profits from the shop to buy food and other necessities for 10 elderly neighbors who have no one to rely on.

He confesses to certain indulgences when asked about his diet.

"I like white sugar and eat often," he said.

Zhong said he is a satisfied man.

"I have known joys and sorrows and witnessed such great changes in China, from the hard years during the wars to the prosperous years, especially the years since the opening-up," he said.

"I feel happy and satisfied with my life. The fear of death can't be found in me."