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'Our Story' offers a graphic glimpse of a China that no longer exists

An illustrated memoir by a Chinese nonagenarian brings back images censored by state propaganda.

Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China By Rao Pingru Pantheon Books 362 pp.

China, 1946. Barely emerging from the Second Sino-Japanese war, the country was now torn by a civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party (KMT). A young KMT soldier took leave from the army to meet with the woman his family had arranged for him to marry. Her name was Mao Meitang, “beautiful crabapple flower” in Chinese. She was smart, beautiful, fun-loving. His name was Rao Pingru, “peace and contentment.” He was generous, caring, unwilling to fight his fellow Chinese.

The couple dreamed of leading a pastoral life, like those depicted in ancient Chinese poems – “making do with simple clothes and food and living out our days, with no need for distant travels.” But they had no idea that “the China of old folk songs would soon be gone forever.”

Within a few years, the Communist Party drove the KMT to Taiwan and founded the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s propaganda demonized the KMT, repressing its role as the main Chinese forces that fought Japanese invaders. KMT associates who remained in the mainland, like Pingru, were labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and sentenced to forced labor. Pingru had fought the Japanese, not the Communists, but Mao’s politics made no such distinctions. In 1958, the 35-year-old Pingru left Meitang for a labor camp. When he came back, he was 58.

By then it was 1980. After decades of political turmoil, China had begun its “Reform and Opening-Up” movement. In Shanghai, Pingru and Meitang enjoyed “good, tranquil time” with their children and grandchildren. Then came illnesses. When Meitang died in 2008, after years of decline, Pingru, then 85, took up his pen and paintbrush to commemorate their marriage and recall his own life. His words and drawings filled 18 volumes, from which a Chinese publisher compiled Our Story.

The 350-page memoir, half in prose and half in color drawings, is a vivid, at times intimate, portrait of a changing China. The story begins with Pingru’s childhood in the 1930s, a time when “the charms of my hometown had not changed much since the days of the Song dynasty [10 to 13th century AD],” and ends in the 2000s, where dialysis equipment for Meitang can be installed in the couple’s bathroom. In between, we see Pingru in close combat with Japanese troops, traveling with Meitang after the war, and enduring hardship at the labor camp. The perspective of a KMT soldier – something China's censors still limit today – will be an eye-opener for many readers, especially young people of Chinese descent around the world.

Pingru’s drawings recall illustrations in classic Chinese novels. These are “wide-angle shots” that situate characters and action in a larger environment: an initiation ceremony for students, where eight-year-old Pingru kneeled in front of a tablet honoring Confucius; a Western-style ballroom frequented by teenage Meitang; a mountainous landscape where Pingru pursued the Japanese. Though the characters’ features are often indistinct, the reader gets a powerful sense of place.

“Close-ups” are rarer but striking. The first facial close-up of Meitang shows her not long after Pingru left for the labor camp, troubled by her colleagues' advice that she divorce him, because he had fought with the KMT. A thought bubble contains the Chinese term “draw a clear boundary," a common phrase in Mao’s time referring to people cutting ties with “counter-revolutionaries” around them. While many renounced family members at that time, not without a sense of pride, Meitang remained loyal.

“You hadn’t betrayed your country, you hadn’t been a thief, you hadn’t done anything wrong, why should I divorce you?” she said to him many years later.

Images from Pingru’s life in the camp, though few in number, vividly evoke how detainees survived with few resources. Pingru would sew together holes on the soles of his socks instead of buying new ones. A group of drawings show how his long socks grew shorter and shorter, becoming mid-length socks, then short socks.

Meitang, left alone and stigmatized because of Pingru, sank into poverty. In one image, she puts her last golden bracelet on her sleeping daughter’s wrist, giving her the one and only chance to wear it before pawning it off the next morning. During Chinese New Year, Pingru was allowed to visit his family. Early one morning, as he got ready to leave for the camp, he found his luggage tied with a rope to the ankle of his sleeping youngest daughter, whom he had forbidden to see him off. Several bells were also fastened on the rope. He untied the rope quietly, without waking her.

Despite these powerful snapshots, much of Pingru’s life from the 1960s and 70s – a censored topic in China – is left unexplored. Mao’s name is never mentioned, nor the abuse of prisoners in labor camps, nor the decade-long Cultural Revolution, in which at least hundreds of thousands perished. While the first 35 years of Pingru’s life fills 250 pages, his two decades in the camp are covered in only 30 pages.

Many questions are left unanswered: How did camp officials and fellow prisoners treat Pingru? With his future in limbo, what were his moments of fear and despair? And what about Meitang? She was the wife of a “counter-revolutionary.” Anyone – even neighbors and colleagues – could raid her home, drag her onto the streets, humiliate and beat her in public. Such incidents were common then. Did Meitang live through any of that?

It is still the case that, to get a book published in China, certain things cannot be talked about in depth.

Aside from its political elements, "Our Story" also has a cultural, sociological value. The author has documented customs, objects, and places from a past that few now remember, but that still lives in the "cultural genes" of Chinese people today. One memorable drawing in the book shows young Meitang at her school’s playground, walking down a special track with “footprints marked in contrasting color, showing how to walk gracefully.” She spreads out her arms slightly, as if trying not to fall. “Meitang used to practice on it every day after class,” Pinru writes, “so that when she grew up she could be a graceful young lady.” Such tracks probably do longer exist today, but the anecdote immediately sheds light on the deeply ingrained gender norms in today’s China.

Another surprising yet revealing anecdote involves Pingru’s mother teaching him how to wring his towel. “For a boy, it was right hand on top, left hand below, and wring clockwise. For a girl, it was the opposite. If you were a boy and did it the girl’s way, everyone laughed at you."

The English translation by Nicky Harman reads smoothly. I noticed a few minor mistakes, which do not significantly alter the gist of the passage. To fully engage English-speaking readers, the book would also have benefited from an introduction and notes that explain historical and social context more fully.

Near the end of “Our Story,” Pingru quoted an ancient Chinese poet while reflecting on Meitang’s life: “Other lives we cannot divine, this life is finished.” “Our Story” is an elegy of lives and ways of life laid waste in the flow of time, buried beneath China's rapid development. But still, Pingru, Meitang and their children were lucky in some ways. Countless people broke with their spouses during the 60s and 70s, and countless children "drew a clear boundary" between themselves and their parents. Countless "counter-revolutionaries" were beaten to death or killed themselves. As we read “Our Story,” we should keep in mind that it offers only a glimpse of some of the past century’s worst atrocities.

Jingnan Peng is the Monitor's multimedia producer.

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