Rao Pingru's 'Our Story', a Visual Retelling of a Chinese Romance

An illustration of Rao and Meitang from 'Our Story'
An illustration of Rao and Meitang from 'Our Story' | © Rao Pingru / Penguin Random House
Photo of Matthew Janney
Uk Books Editor18 May 2018

Rao Pingru’s nostalgic memoir creates a deeply personal portrait of his life and marriage as well as a gripping account of China in the 20th century.

Our Story is a masterpiece of memory. At the age of eighty-eight, following the death of his partner Meitang, Rao Pingru began to paint. With only their love letters, a few heirlooms and his memories as a muse, the former Chinese military man from Nanchang City produced a life’s worth of charming paintings, accompanied by detailed written recollections (translated by Nicky Harman): it is a comprehensive, visual autobiography. Set during the political upheavals of the 20th century in China, Pingru – who has no previous books to his name – tells a story that is both entirely his own and indeed representative of a whole generation.

Pingru’s childhood was like any other: ‘Wash behind your ears, and the nape of your neck,’ his mother would tell him; the universal soundtrack that accompanies almost all childhoods. But his life was anything but ordinary, with a plot that feels inherently novelistic, shaped by the smallest of margins, the closest of calls. The challenge for Pingru was not to turn his life into a novel, but to turn his novelistic story into a life, a life that feels convincing, relatable, lived.

From Rao Pingru's 'Our Story' | © Rao Pingru / Penguin Random House

Pingru’s writing is dispassionate and neutral in contrast to the emotional intensity of his water-colour sketches. If his words describe, his paintings animate, and provide a rich visual backdrop to the narrative. Stylistically, his paintings are naive and cartoon-like, while a palette of diluted yellows and purples are frequently used to colour physical spaces and backgrounds. The prevalence of these colours – yellow and purple denoting remembrance and fortune in Chinese culture respectively – suggest Pingru’s art is fuelled by sharp nostalgia more than aesthetic ambition. As we learn in his epigraph: ‘Every word I have written is true. Every story is true. All these pictures of the past came from my head.’

Like many of that era, Pingru transitioned to adulthood while at war. During World War II, Pingru fought for the 100th Army – a group in the Chinese artillery – against the Japanese. Even when confronted by death, Pingru’s tone remains undisturbed. Recalling a platoon cook who was killed by a Japanese sniper, he remarks: ‘He died instantly. I remember only that his surname was Ren.’

Pingru leaves the philosophising to others, with fragments of poetry interspersed throughout. He quotes Mao Zedong’s version of a Saigō Takamori poem: ‘A hero has no need to be buried in his native place. / He lies surrounded by green mountains.’ Not only is this a way for Pingru to articulate what he cannot express, but using a Chinese version of a Japanese poem is a quiet comment on the futility of war, and the common experience on both sides. After all, ‘Human nature and human feelings are very much the same everywhere’, he reflects.

From Rao Pingru's 'Our Story' | © Rao Pingru / Penguin Random House

On leave from his military duties, Rao gets engaged to Meitang, a distant childhood friend who he goes on to share his life with, and whose presence permeates the book. Pingru writes: ‘Before I met Meitang, I had no fear of dying, or of long journeys, and was blithely unconcerned about the passage of the years. But now, I began to consider the future very carefully indeed.’ If Meitang began to influence Rao’s future then, she is the driving force of his past, now.

Whilst their marriage was plagued by hardship – poverty, ill-health, the years Rao spent in a rehabilitation labour camp – the most moving, and convincing, moments in Rao’s narrative are the ordinary quirks of married life. Rao recalls how he became nearsighted after watching too many movies in the front row with Meitang, in order to compensate for her nearsightedness. It is a perfect symbol of how they willingly accommodated each other’s imperfections, how they expressed their love. Less convincing might be the assertion that they only had one quarrel during their entire lifetime. Could this be a crack in Rao’s nostalgic project? Maybe. But ultimately, this is their story, and the overall narrative is anything but a rose-tinted eulogy.

‘Journeying side by side’ is the title of one chapter, the chapter documenting their various travels together before settling down to family life in Shanghai. On the book’s inside cover, two portraits of Rao and Meitang stand side-by-side, as if looking out onto the world together. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of Le Petit Prince, once said: ‘Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.’ It is this shared vision, this commitment to facing the world side-by-side, that Rao captures so tenderly.

From Rao Pingru's 'Our Story' | © Rao Pingru / Penguin Random House

The book ends with the painful deterioration of Meitang’s health and her eventual death – the reason Rao began writing in the first place – providing a neat circularity to the work. Departing from his characteristically guarded tone, Pingru writes these lines in memory of her, accompanied by a beautiful painting of their silhouettes waving at a technicoloured sky:

‘We endured the most difficult of times, and gradually our lives became better. But heaven granted us so few years together and today I grieve bitterly, because now you are gone. Who can anticipate the vicissitudes of life? I have been through good times and bad, and am disillusioned with this earthly world. I long only to be reunited with you in the next life.’

In a rare show of nakedness, Rao expresses the intensity of his grief, the load of his longing. He has journeyed back, and through his art, made peace with his earthly story. Now, he is ready for a heavenly one.

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