A farewell to Rao Pingru, author of Our Story

By SHEN JIEQUN / 07-08-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 “I’m reading manuscripts while Meitang is teaching a song to our granddaughter” (above), “My first glimpse of Meitang after she grew up” (below), as Rao captions the illustrations Picture: RAO PINGRU

In many romantic stories, the details of when people fall in love at first sight are often impressed and unforgettable. The same is true for Rao Pingru, who always remembered the day when he first met Mao Meitang after she grew up into a young woman—“It was a lovely day, with a warm southerly breeze that caressed our faces.” 


“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. That was my first real impression of Meitang” (trans. Nicky Harman). 


Rao Pingru illustrated this moment in his book, Our Story. Readers impressed by this account, can tell how Rao’s heart is captured by this glimpse and the moment that sparked a union which lasted sixty years. In Our Story, Rao also records his feelings after meeting Meitang: “Before I met Meitang, I had no fear of dying, or of long journeys, and was blithely unconcerned with the passage of the years. But now, I began to consider the future very carefully indeed.” 
Their love story ended in 2008, when Rao was 87, when Meitang succumbed to her battle with Alzheimer’s and other diseases that plagued the final stage of her life. After her passing, Rao decided to turn their life story into a graphic memoir. People can do nothing with death, but they can be remembered forever on paper. On the day of the Qingming Festival, Rao Pingru passed away in Shanghai at age 99. He was finally reunited with Meitang. 
A memorial service was held online for Rao Pingru. In the video, Rao’s family members were sitting on a sofa in a living room. On the wall behind the sofa was a huge wedding photo of Rao and his wife. In this photo, the couple is in their youth: Rao stands straight and dashing in his military uniform and Meitang looks stunning in her wedding dress. 
“We are far away from the state of mind and gentility that my father achieved. He has given us a life-long lesson,” said Rao Lezeng, the third son of Rao Pingru, who had been living with his father for a long time. “When my younger brother bought a new house, the first thing he did was to decorate a nice room for my father. My father was very happy. The lorry [of removers] was fully loaded with his stationery for painting and calligraphy. He asked me to take care of his birds, A Mi (his cat) and street cats,” Rao Lezeng added. 
In the 1950s, the young couple was separated because Rao was sent to do hard labor in Anhui Province, where he spent 22 years before his eventual return to his family in Shanghai. During the 22 years, the couple wrote more than 1,000 letters to each other. Rao collected all the letters from Meitang in a wooden box and read them from time to time. 
According to Rao Lezeng, during his childhood, each time his father’s letters arrived, his eldest brother would read them to other family members. “In his letters, my father always told us to respect our mom, and he paid a lot of attention to our studies. My father was also a grateful man. He was very grateful for those families who agreed to marry their daughters to his sons when our  family was at the lowest point.” 
After being apart for years, Rao was reunited with Meitang in Shanghai. However, Meitang started to get sick and gradually began to lose her memory. Rao quit his job for more time to take care of her. Getting up at 5 AM every morning, he combed Meitang’s hair, washed her face and then went to the local market to shop for fresh vegetables and other items. Meitang’s favorite food was fish braised in brown sauce and Rao cooked it every day. 
One day, when she couldn’t find her granddaughter, Meitang told Rao that he was deliberately hiding her granddaughter from her. Rao sat weeping on the floor, and she looked at him as if she looked at nothing. Rao said in his book, “I realized that Meitang would never be her old self again, and the thought plunged me into despair.” 
Rao knew that Meitang was becoming increasingly confused, but he couldn’t get out of the habit of doing as she asked him. One evening, Meitang suddenly said she’d love some cakes from the Apricot Blossom patisserie. Rao got on his bicycle and went some distance in search of them. When he finally brought the cakes to Meitang, however, she had forgotten her request. On another occasion, Meitang asked Rao for her black qipao with the red flowers on it. But she didn’t have a qipao like that. Rao immediately found a tailor to make a pipao as she depicted. 
In 2008, Meitang passed away. The last painting Rao drew for her is titled “The Last Teardrop,” which depicted her last moment of life. 
Designed in a vintage style, Our Story has a scarlet cover, rough-edged paper and a distinctive exposed spine based on traditional Chinese book-binding methods. Zhu Yingchun, the graphic designer of Our Story, said that among all the writers whom he had worked with, Rao Pingru was the most kindhearted and grateful. “What impressed me most was that every time we went to visit Mr. Rao, he always stood in his doorway to meet us; when we were leaving, he would give us some typical Shanghai snacks as a gift. He was very attentive,” noted Zhu. 
Rao encouraged Zhu to design without limits. His only requirement was to decorate the cover with a bright color. The title and the blooming Chinese crabapple on the cover were painted by Rao himself. 
During the online memorial service, Zhu displayed the letters he had received from Rao Pingru, whose gratitude can be traced between the lines. “I went on book readings with him four times, and every time he was well-groomed and so neat. I believe that was a reflection of his inside world. He was always optimistic. Even when he recalled the years of hardships, he shared the stories with a good laugh. Only when he spoke about his wife, Meitang, I saw his head lowered, with tears in the eyes,” said Zhu. 
“Mr. Rao has an interesting life of his own. He was a good Shanghai man who had always celebrated life,” said Kong Mingzhu, a female Chinese writer. Kong believed that Rao was born with a gift and had never lost it even as he grew older—earnestness and innocence. 
The article was edited and translated from China Youth Daily. 
edited by REN GUANHONG
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