Rao Pingru and Mao Meitang married in Nanchang in 1948, when China was still dominated by rhythms and rituals lingering from imperial days. They stayed married through the Mao years, despite being separated for over two decades; in 1958, Pingru, was sent off for “Reeducation Through Labor”. His crime? He’d once served in the Kuomintang army. Their marriage ended in 2008, with Meitang’s death from kidney failure.
Pingru then embarked on writing and painting Our Story: a memoir of love and life in China, now translated into English by Nicky Harman. The text is above all a deeply moving love letter from Pingru to his wife. Although they’d met as children, the adult Pingru’s first glimpse of Meitang was as he walked through her house, on his way to being formally introduced to her with a view to an arranged marriage:
We walked through two courtyards and were about to enter the main hall of the third when I suddenly saw a small window in the west building open. I looked more closely—there was a pretty young woman about twenty years old holding a hand mirror to the light in her right hand and applying lipstick with her left. She did not see me, but I knew it must be her.
This verbal account of Pingru’s first glimpse of Meitang is accompanied by a painting showing her putting on her lipstick. If Our Story is Pingru’s love letter to his wife, it is also his love painting; almost every page is gorgeously illustrated with his enchanting, sometimes heartbreaking paintings, including a series recording Meitang’s decline, the final one an image of her on her deathbed.
But, as the title suggests, Our Story isn’t only about Meitang, it is also about Pingru: it’s his own account of himself. As well as his loyalty, kindness, lack of self-pity, and forgiving nature, what shines through the text, and the paintings, is that here is a man interested in everything. I found one of the most quietly moving images in the book a black and white painting of one of the oil lamps at Pingru’s and Meitang’s wedding. It is labelled: “vent, pump button, shade, guard, oil tank, hook.” How interested in the world, how engaged with the world, and how observant Pingru must be, to have lavished on his wedding day such attention even on oil lamps. And as is evident from the text and other paintings, this was with no loss to the attention he paid his bride, or their wedding guests.
Like any memoir, Our Story is partly about memory. The epigraph to part 1, Our Childhood Years, refers to Pingru’s and Meitang’s brief meetings as children:
Those moments could have become treasured memories, but regrettably we were each happily absorbed in our own young lives in those days.
This explicit interest in memory, in what is remembered, and what is forgotten, and why, continues throughout the book, to the very end. Pingru includes poems throughout the text. As part of his account of Meitang’s funeral, he includes this one, written by a cousin and also a painter:
Memories, like clouds of many hues
Hover over me
Every life has a term, yet
I wish I could keep those memories forever.
How to keep them always with me?
Record them in words and pictures.
I came into this world empty-handed.
Only these have I truly loved.
Nicky Harman’s translation reads fluently in English and gives a sense of what must be the vibrancy of the original Chinese.
As well as poetry, Our Story also includes room for wonderful descriptions of food. Mooncakes, pears, fried breadsticks, “teeming fishes congee”, corn cobs, potstickers, deep fried bean curd, all sorts of dishes are lovingly described, and many of them sound mouth-watering. Then there are the noodles. Noodles make regular appearances throughout Our story, including during a distressing episode where Pingru and Meitang set up a noodle-selling business. But their noodles weren’t so good, “they were not of consistent quality, and came out either too wet or too dry.” The flour became infested with weevils. Worst of all, the shop was burgled, and the thief ran off with the medium-size noodle knife, meaning Pingru and Meitang could no longer make medium-size noodles. Soon, the business went bust. And Pingru didn’t do much better when he went into selling chillies, either.
Pingru makes more of the noodle shop and chilli-selling disasters than he does of his Reeducation Through Labor. Our Story is not a political broadside, and the years when the family are separated are treated with a light touch. By 1958 Pingru and Meitang have 5 children. We hear more of Meitang’s and the children’s suffering, than we do of Pingru’s—although we do get glimpses of Pingru’s life through a selection of Meitang’s letters to him, included as an appendix. But whatever the hardships, Pingru and Meitang never consider splitting. When Pingru was first sent for Reeducation, the authorities advised Meitang to divorce her husband, but, as she later told him:
If you’d had an affair I would have divorced you immediately… but you hadn’t betrayed your country, you hadn’t embezzled anything, you hadn’t been a thief, you hadn’t done anything wrong, why would I divorce you?
Nicky Harman’s translation reads fluently in English and gives a sense of what must be the vibrancy of the original Chinese. The countryside is “crisscrossed” with waterways “like veins of a leaf”. Of a Song dynasty scroll we learn that “The thin silk had gone as dark as soy sauce with age.” Where explanation of characters is needed, it is included gracefully, so the reader is not distracted.
The copyright page says Our Story was originally published by Guangxi Normal University Press, and then published in France, before it was made available to an English-speaking readership. It would have been interesting if the publishers of the English edition had included a preface explaining how Our Story came to the attention of Guangxi Normal University Press, how it was received in China, and how it eventually came to be translated into English. But that’s the only minor quibble I have with this book.
I defy anyone to flip from the photographs inside the front cover, of Pingru and Meitang in youth, to the one inside the back cover, of them in old age, without feeling their eyes become moist.