It took 103-year-old Tan Songxiu only seven seconds to compute 36 to the power of 3 in her head. Xiaohui, from the same village in China, calculated 36 squared using pen and paper—also in only seven seconds.
Running a Hotel at the Age of 13
According to the “Southern China Metropolitan,” Tan was born in the town of Xi’an in Lianzhou City which is in the Province of Guangdong. As a child, she roamed about with her family to escape the war. In 1918, they settled in Xiahuang Village of Lianzhou City. At the age of 13, Tan was betrothed to Huang, a local man.
Tan convinced Huang they could make their living by starting a hotel. Many vendors passed through their village as they carried products from between two neighboring provinces. So at the age of 13, Tan was up before dawn to cook breakfast for their guests and worked late into the night to prepare the hotel for the next day.
“We had nearly 20 guests everyday, and it kept us so busy,” remembered Tan. The money they made, though, was barely enough to sustain them.
In the process of running the hotel, she learned a shortcut—how to quickly calculate numbers in her mind. One day a vendor asked her, “If you have 32 cages with 32 chickens in each cage and each chicken weighs 32 Liang (~3.5 lbs.), how many Jin and Liang (Jin and Liang are old Chinese units of weight) of chicken will you have? If you get the right answer, I will give you a free chicken.”
Tan had the answer immediately: “That will be a total of 32,768 Liang or 2,048 Jin of chicken (1 Jin=16 Liang).” It took the vendor awhile to do the calculation himself, but when he got the same answer, he gave Tan the free chicken.
Her friends and neighbors already knew of Tan’s ability with math. Her great daughter-in-law said, “When I used to go to the market with her, she had everything calculated in her head before I even started to write out the calculation.”
A Generous Spirit
Now Tan’s hair is all white with a hint of yellow. She has good eyes, three teeth left, and doesn’t hear very well. She’s been quite healthy throughout her life, except for one hospitalization in 1976 when she was 71.
Tan suddenly began to suffer from vomiting and diarrhea. Her children carried her for two hours, walking to a clinic six miles away. The doctor said she would not live long and admitted her to the clinic. Twice a day her children brought her food and clothes and attended to her every need.
Fourteen days later, Tan was able to go home again. Looking back, Tan always says she survived because of her dutiful and obedient children.
Tan’s neighbor, Huang Jianqi, has a different view. He believes her longevity is a result of her lifelong generosity.
When Huang was unable to care for his three children while doing his daily farm work,
Tan took care of the children and helped with the cooking without ever asking for a dime. “Because of her kindness, my children grew up healthy.” Other villagers also shared stories of Tan’s kindness. “She babysat for me and planted the rice seedlings….”