Sep 06

Did Chinese medicine make Chinese emperors live longer?

Written by real name on Monday, September 6th, 2010 at 10:22 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, Analysis, culture |
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In the discussion about Chinese medicine arose the question why in China people do not live longer than elsewhere.

It is clear that except medicine is their life expectancy affected by many other factors.

If we consider the negative impact of today’s polluted environment why the Chinese did not live longer in pre-industrial era?
“Because they were poor and hard working.”

So let have a look at the longevity of those who
– were not poor, can afford the best food, doctors and drugs
– (according to advertisement) they were mad about chi-kung
– (according to the net-shop with no real address) followed feng-shui rules.
Let’s have a look at the longevity of Chinese emperors.

It is clear that this sample is not statistically significant and one dynasty are members of the same family may be affected by some negative effects.

In some cases could be real age lower than referred because sometimes was my calculation based on the difference in years only, ignoring the months. Reports about calculation errors are welcomed.

From the long list on Wikipedia I deal with selected dynasties only – also because from the time before 2800 years ago we have no reliable information. Unfortunately, even later it is not always clear – will see.

Consciously I focused on Han dynasties only, ignoring Manju (Qing) and Mongol (Yuan), which had a little bit different background.

Last ethnically Han dynasty was Ming (1368-1644), in other words family Zhu. Its rulers lived following time:
1st 1328 to 1398 = 69 years
2nd 1377 to 1402 = 24
3rd 1360 to 1424 = 64
4th 1378 to 1425 = 46
5th 1398 to 1435 = 36
6th 1427 to 1464 = 36
7th 1428 to 1457 = 28
8th 1447 to 1487 = 39
9th 1470 to 1505 = 34
10th 1491 to 1521 = 29
11th 1507 to 1567 = 59
12th 1537 to 1572 = 25
13th 1563 to 1620 = 56
14th 1582 to 1620 = 38
15th 1605 to 1627 = 21
16th 1611 to 1644 = 33
So from today’s perspective not much. Longest life had dynasty founder who became king nearly forty years old.

It could be useful to filter out those who died prematurely from non-medical reasons. For example, the second one was overthrown by the third and probably killed in the fight, seventh overthrew sixth but he returned it to him and last one committed suicide when the next dynasty was pushing itself into the palace.
But even kicking whichever we can’t reach today’s average life expectancy.

So at least let’s write what can be easily found about their death on Wikipedia:
1st 1328 to 1398 = 69
2nd 1377 to 1402 = 24 killed?
3rd 1360 to 1424 = 64
4th 1378 to 1425 = 46 heart attack
5th 1398 to 1435 = 36 (unspecified) disease
6th 1427 to 1464 = 36
7th 1428 to 1457 = 28 killed
8th 1447 to 1487 = 39
9th 1470 to 1505 = 34 (the doctors after his death executed)
10th 1491 to 1521 = 29 diseases
11th 1507 to 1567 = 59 poisoning (doctors after his death executed) #1
12th 1537 to 1572 = 25
13th 1563 to 1620 = 56 #2
14th 1582 to 1620 = 38 disease
15th 1605 to 1627 = 21
16th 1611 to 1644 = 33 suicide

From the famous Ming we’re moving to the golden age of Tang Dynasty (618-907, Li family).
The first period (until the interruption in 690-705) is no win again:
1st 566 to 635 = 69 disease
2nd 599 to 649 = 50 disease or poisoning #1
3rd 628 to 683 = 55 disease
4th 656 to 710 = 53 poisoning
5th 662 to 716 = 54 (dying after four years of retirement)

Later Tang has finally one who lived more than 70 years:
6th 695 or 698 to 714 = 19 or 23
7th 685 to 762 = 76 glory to him!
8th 711 to 762 = 51
9th 727 to 779 = 52 heart attack
10th 742 to 805 = 62 disease
11th 761 to 806 = 45
12th 778 to 820 = 42 murder
13th 795 to 824 = 29 disease
14th 809 to 827 = 17 murder
15th 809 to 840 = 31 disease
16th 814 to 846 = 31 poisoning #1
17th 810 to 859 = 49 poisoning #1
18th 833 to 873 = 39 disease
19th 862 to 888 = 27 accident
20th 867 to 904 = 37 murder
21st 892 to 908 = 17 poisoning

Han Dynasty (Han, 206 BC-9 AD, Liu family):
1st -256 (256 BC) or -247 to 195 = 52 or 61
2nd -210 to -188 = 22 disease
3rd -?? to -184 =? murder
4th -?? to -180 =? execution
5th -202 to -157 = 45
6th -188 to -141 = 47
7th -156 to -87 = 69 disease
8th -94 to -74 = 20
9th -? to -59 = ?
10th -91 to -49 = 42
11th -75 to -33 = 42
12th -51 to 44 -7 = heart attack #3
13th -27 And -1 = 26
14th -9 to 6 = 13? poisoning
15th 5 to 25 = 20 murder
16th ? to 25 =? murder
17th -5 to 57 = 61
18th 28 to 75 = 47
19th 57 to 88 = 31
20th 79 to 105 = 26
21st 105 to 106 = 1
22nd 94 to 125 = 32 murder?
23rd ? to ? = ?
24th 115 to 144 = 29/30 disease
25th 143 to 145 = 2
26th 138 to 146 = 8 poisoning
27th 132 to 168 = 36
28th 156 to 189 = 34 disease
29th 173 or 176 to 190 = 14 or 17 poisoning
30th 181 to 234 = 53 (abdicated)

Part of Qin dynasty (221 BC-207 BC, Ying family), specifically the section which is considered (pan-)Chinese:
1st -259 to -210 = 49 poisoning #1
2nd -229 to -207 = 22 suicide
3rd -?? to -206 =? murder

A small part of the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC, Ji family), after -841 (later Zhou), which is for our purposes documented enough:
11th -841 to -781 = 60
12th -795 to -771 = 24 murder
13th -771 to -720 = 51

You may have noticed # in some lines.

#1 means (almost voluntary) poisoning by elixir of immortality, typically containing mercury. The miracle used to be prescribed by alchemist and used more times – until death. At least unifier of China, our number one of Qin Dynasty, ended due to mercury as a paranoiac, what because of its power had disastrous effects on its surroundings. Administration of toxic mercury was based on Taoist classical-medicine tradition, which recognizes the transition from food, drugs (ordinary food is medicine already) to poisons. The more powerful drug – the more strong poison. Till now has Chinese medicine own standards for mercury content.

For #2, even he has not named reason of death, but half a century ago scientists found in its body marks of abundant use of opium. Unclear whether because of whim or for pain relief.

#3 has indicated that he died of a heart attack, noting that it was probably the effect of potency-increasing medicament. It is possible that more of the emperor’s death had the same reason.

So I said to myself that if cause of premature death could be harem, it would be interesting to compare the Chinese emperors with the Turkish sultans. List of sultans was unexpectedly long and sometimes ambiguous, so there is only the beginning:
1st 1258 to 1326 = 68 (or 1258 to 1324 = 64 Wikipedia gives different numbers at the beginning and end of the article)
2nd 1281 to 1361 = 80 (or 1284 to 1359 = 75)
3rd 1326 to 1389 = 63 (or 1319 to 1389 = 70) Battle of Kosovo
4th 1360 to 1403 = 43 (or 1354 to 1403 = 47/48), suicide in captivity
5th 1382 to 1421 = 39
6th 1404 to 1451 = 47 disease
7th 1432 to 1481 = 49 poisoned?
Moreover, I admit, I did not even started to search when Ottoman tradition of harems started.

I tried it from the other end. Tibetan Dalai Lamas make it clear that be without harem does not automatically mean to have a long life:
1st 1391 to 1474 = 83
2nd 1475 to 1542 = 67
3rd 1543 to 1588 = 45
4th 1589 to 1617 = 28 poisoning?
5th 1617 to 1682 = 65
6th 1683 to 1706? = 23?
7th 1708 to 1757 = 49
8th 1758 to 1804 = 46
9th 1805 to 1815 = 10
10th 1816 to 1837 = 21 overall poor health
11th 1838 to 1856 = 18
12th 1857 to 1875 = 18 disease
13th 1876 to 1933 = 57
14th 1935 to ? = at least 75

As a short European bonus first Roman emperors (so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty, 27 BC-68 AD):
1st -63 to 14 = 75
2nd -42 to 37 = 77
3rd 12 to 41 = 28 killed
4th -10 to 54 = 63 killed
5th 37 to 68 = 30 suicide

Let’s have a look at some spiritual leaders of China.
Lao-C ‘is a vague, but Confucius (-551 to -479 = 71/72) and his followers Mencius (-732 to -289 = 83) and Xun Xi (-313 to -238 = 75) lived quite a long time.

Great Helmsman (1893-1976) lived nice 82 years.
Mentioning him I recall to myself nearly twenty-year-old ad in one of European magazines. It offered Asian miracle product to restore the hair fleece with the slogan “Do you know any bald Chinese?”. Who does not.
God knows which one emperors were using.

Adopted and translated from cina.exil.sk, author Tibor Blazko.

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32 Responses to “Did Chinese medicine make Chinese emperors live longer?”

  1. Jed Yoong Says:

    No, sex did.


  2. TonyP4 Says:

    I read somewhere that Chinese emperors do not have a decent life expectancy.

    Besides fighting for powers, sex as Jed said is the culprit. Some emperors have 3,000 beautiful ladies. Do the math. They have only 7 days a week!

    Most fancy food may not help. Lack of exercise too.

  3. real name Says:

    btw. for some 3,000 beautiful ladies were not enough
    (you do not believe to ad about “come to exercise way chinese emperors did?”)

  4. TonyP4 Says:

    real name, real exercise requires all muscles, not only one, haha.

    Most likely, lesbians started in Chinese imperial courts. The beautiful ladies cannot wait for ever. Just an educated guess. My last comment on this topic as I do not want to drag down the moral standard of this blog.

  5. Jed Yoong Says:

    Tony — You sure they only had 1 at a time?

    Real Name — Do you believe everything you read on Wiki? But according to TV, Hollywood, HK Ent, etc, it seems esp the Qing….

  6. Jed Yoong Says:

    Tony P4 — Surely the more juicy court gossip of Imperial Times is among d concubines n eunuchs…..

  7. TonyP4 Says:

    Is castrating the eunuchs a Chinese exclusive? The obvious purpose is preventing them from fooling around with the beautiful ladies.

    Most likely the important ladies will be ‘recycled’ one at a time. Chinese care about ‘face’. However, most ladies have younger helpers. Another educated guess. I lie as it was not my last post on this topic.

  8. Jed Yoong Says:

    Tony P4 — You guess too much. Get some facts. Eunuchs, princes, etc with concubines. Also, it’s d Emperor. So important ladies may or may not be ‘recycled one at a time’. You reveal much about yourself. I read a lot.

  9. Rhan Says:

    I don’t think too much sex cause death, most emperors except perhaps the first and second live a life that serves no purpose to live, sex and concubine is the only symbol of freedom and power.

    Talking about death, I notice Chinese quite frequent use the term 气死 (die with anger), for instance 张云山 and 袁世凯, this not happen long time ago but in the earlier twentieth century. Maybe China history have too much elements of fiction and imagination.

  10. HKer Says:

    气死 (die from anger) : It describes for example a massive heart attack triggered by an acute rise in blood pressure.

    ” Maybe China history have too much elements of fiction and imagination.”

    Maybe try – every civilization 🙂 At least our history books are not replete with, “the Lord God said,” or ” The Lord commanded the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child and livestocks, take no spoils of war except for the virgins.”
    I know Tony would love the last part of the divine command. Haha

  11. Wukailong Says:

    The word 气死 is used in everyday parlance these days, isn’t it. I don’t know how many times a day you hear somebody call out “气死我了” or “烦死了”. It sort of reminds me back in my youth when girls would say “I would die” to describe some hypothetical humiliating experience.

  12. real name Says:

    4. chi-kung = one?
    5. Do you believe everything you read on Wiki? no, can see turkish example in article. but wiki is very good source for the start. if you disagree give us your sources and can discuss it here (or on wiki directly).
    if someone thinks another parameter is important (is number of concubines he really never met relevant?) put it here.
    i also will be glad when someone will add new qing, turkish, japanese or any other data.
    just don’t take statistics about few people too seriously. it just highlights the fact this group is probably not the best example for healthy and long living people.

  13. Jed Yoong Says:

    Rhan — Yeah. They are not suppose to do v much anyway. And since they were so powerful and the peace was so lasting. And ppl kept paying tribute (NOT tax, although later ones taxed)….

  14. Jed Yoong Says:

    Rhan — better than CCP police?

    “I am a police officer. I can get involved in anything that occurs on any inch of land in the People’s Republic of China.”


    Yeah, as far as I know, Emperors seldom practise Nanny-style govt, at least directly, perhaps officials did at local levels. The Emperor simply ain’t your parents.

  15. Berlin Says:

    Being an emperor does sound like a high-risk job, but few can resist the temptation of control and power.

    It would be great to provide life expectancy data for the average people in ancient times so that we know what we are comparing against. There is a saying in Chinese: “It’s ancient-rare for someone to live up to 70.” People in general died much younger than they do nowadays.

    If interested, I recommend The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce. One of the chapters describes the coming of age when we are going to be “older, wiser, greener.”

    Are we?

    The book also mentioned that a century ago, the average life expectancy is 47. Today only 10 countries in Africa and Afghanistan offer less than that.

  16. TonyP4 Says:

    Berlin, it is quite hard to compare as they did not keep good records except for the imperial courts. There are too many periods in 5,000 or so civilization and they should be sub classified into peaceful periods and war periods. China is so vast in geography and it is hard to generalize without modern statistics.

    From my memory, China has about a handful of emperors who passed 70 years of age and I believe they are close to 300 emperors. Many farmers in remote areas in China even not too long ago live pass 80 even they do not take any of today’s medicines.

    Even for the last 250 years, most Chinese high officials have high risk jobs. During Mao’s period, Mao was the only one who had a easier time after 1949.

  17. Steve Says:

    The Cinnabar form of mercury (朱砂) is still used in Chinese medicine, though it it not taken internally.

    Be careful when referring to average age of death in ancient times. The low numbers were mostly caused by childhood diseases. Most people who lived to thirty had an average lifespan of 70 so that is really the metric we should use to judge longevity.

    Taoist practice believes that sexual energy must be conserved in order to live a long life and so practiced certain techniques to achieve that goal. Whether these actually add to longevity is anyone’s guess but they certainly believed it. The main book for this practice was called Secrets of the Jade Chamber.

  18. Berlin Says:

    TonyP4, thanks for the response. I am also wondering how ancient Chinese people manage sickness since there are those (including the recently hammered “science cop” Fang Zhouzi) basically deny that Chinese medicine is of any good. Yet people did get sick and some get cured without western medicine playing any role.

    Correction: “The book also mentioned that a century ago, the average life expectancy is 47”. The data is for Britain only.

  19. No99 Says:

    For ancient times, I think longevity was mostly maintained by diet, genetics and exposure. Some genetic disorders were originally mutations in the body so it can survived environment. Like sickle cell diseases in places with high risks of malaria or cystic fibrosis for those who live in very cold regions.

    The Chinese geography in the past is different in some ways, and they were quite mobile. Overtime, the people got exposed to many different places, different allergens and other pathogens, overtime their immune systems kind of built up. There weren’t vaccines, but there was the crude reality where some bodies could fight off viruses and bacteria, and some didn’t. Natural selection, or some other term I forgot.

    The Diet was also pretty diverse compared to many places. The cooking may be different, but they still had plenty of vegetables, fruits and proteins, plus trading with India and Southeast Asia provided more products like spices. Contrary to popular belief, dairy products were consumed, though it probably didn’t a lot on what part of China you are in.

    Hygiene wise, were ok, attitudes and practices were slightly different. In some ways, you could say our Ancients were a little better than us today, and vice versa. They had just enough water, where they did wash throughly their food, clothes, homes and bathe themselves. Chinese were and are very frugal, but back then, the population was kind of not as extreme as today, so they had enough natural resources to do a lot and take care of themselves, relatively speaking.

    All of these factors probably contributed to long lives of Ancient Chinese. I don’t know much about medicine, but I did read some articles by some Sinologists saying overall, the chances for good health with Chinese medicine and Western (conventional) medicine was about the same in the 19th century. Things changed only recently.

    Chinese medicine, I’m guessing, was more of a trial and error type of usage, which overtime became an actual system. The point of medicine is to make your own body heal itself, which is does have that ability. Studies today do show that some Chinese medicinal products have some benefits like wormwood. People in the past may not have the knowledge of Anatomy and physiology as we do today, but they had just enough to make it for the next day, month or year. Though for emergencies, it probably wasn’t that useful, and TCM practitioners do acknowledge that.

  20. Rhan Says:

    Jed, sorry I don’t really get your point. What you mean by peace was so lasting and paying tribute?

    Is the emperor really that powerful? Similarly to Chinese tradition as what happen in most family and clan, you only grasp the power when the elder die or retire.

    I notice there is a trend that more and more people going for Chinese medicine, and traditional Chinese doctor (from China) is now getting popular, and hopefully, they could re-create the confidence and preserve the medical ethics. TCM have a tough future, exactly like “Chinese characteristic.”

  21. TonyP4 Says:

    Hi No99, pretty interesting. We should integrate Chinese medicine into the western medicine. We already have pills and/or powder from Chinese herbal medicine extracts, so we do not have to cook the herbs. Most herbal extractions do not have side effects as the west. For some reasons, Chinese lack behind western medical technology, health care and medicine.

    I benefit from western medicines a lot. Prevention is the best cure. In China, we need to control air/water pollution and cut down smoking. Chinese did not have so many fat kids before McDonald’s moved in. A lot of health problems in the west are due to processed food and household chemicals.

  22. No99 Says:

    It would be really hard to change life for the better if people want to live like America (processed foods, more meat, sedentary lifestyles, etc.), if that is the goal. It will take some more time to develop a good health care system, this is something every country needs to figure out on their own. Everyone has unique factors such as geography, age demographics, resources, education, etc.

    Unless there is some more radical innovation, all those harmful chemicals and pollution is here to stay. Researchers, Engineers, the average technician or carpenter and basically anyone who cares about these issues will have to figure out a way to replace the current system of making things. Hardly anyone will want to go back to pre-industrial times. On the other hand, for the sake of improving the lives of all people, not just some and keeping a nice environment, a lot, not all, of the methods and machines created since Industrialization will either need drastic change or be scrap away.

    That is if people don’t want to change their lifestyles or stop the path to “modernization”, which is what I think most people want. Just my opinion.

  23. TonyP4 Says:

    My observations:

    * If any country can control its citizens from smoking (US has a good success record than China), they can close down 20% of the hospitals.

    *My friends told me most of his co-workers working in a large chemical company die before 70. On the bright side, it is the best way to control population growth and not to bankrupt our social security system. 🙂

  24. HKer Says:

    ” On the bright side, it is the best way to control population growth and not to bankrupt our social security system ”

    LOL, Tony, we share rather similar sense of humor, i.e. Hong Kong style !

    I wonder which kills more people, smoking or processed food laden with chemicals, and refined sugar ?

  25. TonyP4 Says:

    HKer, none of the above. It is sex, either too less or too much. 🙂

  26. HKer Says:

    LOL, hm…. Tony,

    I wonder if monks, nuns or those who practice celibacy in fact live longer? Although, that is really hard to ascertain since many so-claimed celibates are closet effers, hence it is near impossible to obtain reliable statistics. I doubt very much that such natural act shortens human lifespan. If anything, being a good form of aerobic cardiovascular exercise, it should in fact prolong life. It really is through the contraction of STDs, and from unhealthy lifestyle, diet and crime of passion that cause sex related fatality.

  27. real name Says:

    more complex study of American Journal of Geriatrics Society:
    241 emperors: 41 years average
    – one more named reason for their premature death: alcohol
    – six emperors performed regular exercise and refrained from overindulgence: 81
    140 Buddhist monks: 67
    181 traditional Chinese doctors: 75

  28. HKer Says:

    If only one method or lifestyle contributes to longevity, then this particular celebrity and his many male and female colleagues should all live to be at least 90 considering the au naturale manner of their profession !



  29. auto electice Says:

    All these secrets are kept hidden and guarded by holiness. Surely this happens, and the secrets of Chinese medicine are exceptional. Tradition spanning thousands of years. If these secrets would be revealed, the global population would get out of control, and nature could not support us all.

  30. James W. Says:

    Although it is understandable that the Manchu Qing and Mongol Yuan have different cultural and genetic factors, I would venture that Tang is not entirely “Han” either, as along with Sui, the Tang imperials were part Xianbei. Of course, the Tang valued diversity and incorporated many things and themselves into Chinese culture, whereas the Manchus and Mongols tried to set themselves apart with ethnic castes.

    Still, with the Qing and Yuan factored in, there doesn’t really seem to be that much of a difference *on average* although more outliers are introduced. With the exception of Kublai Khan, it seems that several Yuan rulers died young (8 of Yuan’s 11 emperors died by age 35!). As for the Qing, even the illustrious Kangxi didn’t make it to 70.

    But the emperors who would top the list would then be:
    Qianlong (Qing), age 87
    Wu Zetian (Tang interregnum), age 81
    Kublai Khan (Yuan), age 78

    Of course, on average, women tend to live longer than men. Do you think that perhaps looking at the age of Chinese empresses would be a better indicator of longevity? I’m pretty sure Wu Zetian wasn’t the only empress to live past 80.

  31. real name Says:

    Do you think that perhaps looking at the age of Chinese empresses would be a better indicator of longevity?
    i’m not sure
    but maybe one day i will have also look at any http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_consorts


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