[FOUNTAIN]Challenges to the Nobility of AgeThe ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu warned, "The longer you live, the greater your shame will be." But some people still believe it is better to be alive and tarred by the brush of experience than to be dead. The National Statistical Office said recently the life expectancy of a male born in 1999 is 72 years and a female 79 years. It is good news that people are living four years longer than 10 years ago, and about 10 years longer than 20 years ago.
German archaeologists who unearthed remains in Egypt believed to be from about 4,000 B.C. estimated that the average life expectancy of the time was somewhere between 20 and 30 years. Those figures are not far from the estimated life expectancy of the people of the Choson dynasty, 24 years, as derived from records dated between 1906 and 1910. Statistics from the time of Japanese colonial rule in 1930 showed the probability of a newborn not surviving to see his 5th birthday was 41 percent. Naming a newborn baby after his dead brother was not an uncommon custom just half a century ago, especially among the poor.
King Yongjo, the longest living king of the Choson dynasty, lived to be 83 in the 18th century. A survey of the kingdom he ruled at 80 suggested there were about 1,000 people over the age of 80 and about 20 over the age of 100. But some local governors were punished, as they were found to have exaggerated the age of many of the 1,100 in hope of receiving a royal award. These are the facts according to a book by Shin Dong-won, "Life, Aging, Illness and Death of the People of the Choson Dynasty."
Often, deficient food or housing and the inability to prevent or treat illnesses were responsible for shortened lives. A folk tale about the life of the fictional character Byun Kang-soe, the epitome of inexhaustible manly sexual prowess, reels off more than 90 different ailments that he was said to have suffered at the time of his death, including migraine, lower back pain, rheumatism in the shoulders, blindness, swollen lymph glands, gonorrhea, hemorrhoids and so on. Even a man as virile and defiant of frailty as he was, in the end, was no match for sickness.
In the past, those who lived a long time were conferred a certain status. But that has been changing. Voltaire once said, "Someone who does not possess the wisdom fit for his years suffers all the problems that come with his age." The lesson is that people should act their age. But in Korea, where even a renowned writer was recently ridiculed in a very public arena for his alleged immaturity by a lawmaker young enough to be his youngest sister, age is no longer always deemed worthy of respect.
The writer is deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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