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Our Story

Written by RAO PINGRU
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Publisher: Pantheon
On Sale: 05/08/2018
Price: $30.00
ISBN: 978-1-101-87149-2
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
Begun by the author when he was eighty-seven years old and mourning the loss of his wife, Our Story is a graphic memoir like no other: a celebration of a marriage that spanned the twentieth century in China, told in vibrant, original paintings and prose.
Rao Pingru was twenty-four-year-old soldier when he was reintroduced to Mao Meitang, a girl he’d known in childhood and now the woman his father had arranged for him to marry. One glimpse of her through a window as she put on lipstick was enough to capture Pingru’s heart: a moment that sparked a union that would last almost sixty years.
Our Story is Pingru and Meitang’s epic but unassuming romance. It follows the couple through the decades, in both poverty and good fortune—looking for work, opening a restaurant, moving cities, mending shoes, raising their children, and being separated for seventeen years by the government when Pingru is sent to a labor camp. As the pair ages, China undergoes extraordinary growth, political turmoil, and cultural change. When Meitang passes away in 2008, Pingru memorializes his wife and their relationship the only way he knows how: through painting. In an outpouring of love and grief, he puts it all on paper. Spanning 1922 through 2008, Our Story is a tales of enduring love and simple values that is at once tragic and inspiring: an old-fashioned story that unfolds in a nation undergoing cataclysmic change.

“Pingru’s intimate, illustrated memoir of a life shared with his wife, Meitang, offers a touching portrait of marriage. The story is driven by rich memories of everyday life. . . paired with Pingru’s expressive ink drawings. . . . Our Story makes a compelling case for love’s power.” —Booklist

“Using spare prose and stunning, full-color illustrations, Pingru reveals his struggles, joys, and enduring love for his wife over the course of their lives in a dramatically changing China. . . . Pingru’s exquisite, visually dazzling memoir reveals an ordinary life lived in extraordinary times.”  Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“A vivid, at times intimate, portrait of a changing China.” The Christian Science Monitor, “10 Best Books of May”

“Pingru, [at age] 95, makes his literary debut with a charming memoir illustrated with his own evocative watercolors. . . . A graceful, gently told narrative of contentment and resilience.”  Kirkus Reviews
RAO PINGRU was born in 1922. He lives in Shanghai, China.

Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
My first clear memories are of the ceremony that marked the formal start of my schooling. I was eight years old.
First, the right day had to be chosen. When it arrived, I was woken by a servant at about three o’clock in the morning. I washed and dressed, and went to the main hall of our house, where everything was prepared: my father, mother, and the gentleman who was to initiate me into the mysteries of education were standing by the tablet that honored Confucius. In the stillness of the night, the candlelight lent an air of great solemnity to the occasion, and I felt a thrill of excitement. But what really made me happy were the Four Treasures of Study, the brand-­new brush, ink, paper, and inkstone laid out on the writing desk. The gentleman in question was my “Uncle Huang,” and we were related by marriage: his eldest daughter was married to my big brother. His full name was Huang Xiaopu and he was at that time chief judge at the Hunan Province Supreme Court. His calligraphy was beautiful. He grasped my hand and together we traced the first lesson: lines of characters dedicated to the greatest educator of all, Confucius. He gripped my hand painfully hard, but I did not dare make a sound.
It was the custom for the very first characters written during this ceremony to be put away carefully by one’s mother. Afterward, we went to the sitting room, where an array of drinks and food were laid out down one side of the room. The steam which rose from the dishes of hot food seemed especially designed to dispel the seriousness of the moment. After our meal, my big brother took me to school. As we walked through the silent streets, the first light of dawn was visible in the sky. It was bitingly cold.
That was our first year in Nanchang city. My father was a lawyer and we lived in a house by Chenjia Bridge. It was not a good location, but there were complicated reasons why we were there: my father’s younger sister had married a man from a wealthy family. But unbeknownst to her family, the man to whom she had been given in marriage was in poor health, and, scarcely a year later, she was widowed and mother to a baby daughter, my cousin. For this reason, my father was determined to take good care of his younger sister. One evening when my cousin was five, on the anniversary of her father’s death, her nanny, a fearsome old woman, took the little girl to the ceremonies that were being carried out to placate his spirit.
“Go on! Go and see! Your daddy’s come!” The old woman screamed at my cousin and pushed her forward. My cousin was so traumatized by this experience that she lost her wits. Although she did marry and have children, she was never happy.
My aunt had a relative who was investing in various ventures, and she borrowed 8,000 yuan to put in and became his partner. I do not know whether the ventures really lost money, but I do know that she was unable to pay the loan back. Then she mortgaged the house at Chenjia Bridge but was still unable to manage and asked my father to rent it from her. And that was why we spent eight years there.
After dinner every day, Third Brother and I (the two youngest children in the family) would go to my mother’s bed, where she told us stories. They were mostly traditional tales about morality: about Min Ziqian,1 who was obedient to his stepmother even though she treated him badly, and about Six-­Feet Alley, the story of how a wise minister resolved a boundary dispute in Imperial China.2 I still remember the emotion on her face as she got to the bit where Min Ziqian begs his father not to repudiate his cruel stepmother:
“If Mother stays at home, only I have to endure the cold. But if you divorce Mother, all three of us children will suffer the cold.”
And her laughter as she explained the last two lines of “Six-­Feet Alley.”
Our family was originally from Nancheng county, Fuzhou district, Jiangxi province. Nancheng dates back to ancient times, to the days when Liu Bang ruled as the first Han dynasty emperor, and Nancheng belonged to Yuzhang district.
The Xu River flowed north through old Nancheng; the town walls were built on the west bank of the river, and there were gates to the north, south, east, and west. Within the town, there was North Street, South Street, East Street, and West Street. The last was the longest. Our home was on North Street. The east bank was the outskirts of the town, so once you crossed Peace Bridge, there was less to see and fewer people around. The town and surrounding countryside were crisscrossed with waterways, like the veins of a leaf, and encircled by serried ranks of beautiful jade-­green peaks. Among the most famous were Magu Mountain and Conggu Mountain. There is a Song dynasty poem which goes

Flourishing fields of wheat and green, green mountains, a winding road.
The land of the South, stretching a thousand li, brings tears to the eyes in spring.
Mother Xu stands at the river crossing, calls to the ferryman, points far off to the third valley, Mayuan.

Seen through a poet’s eyes, the charm of my hometown had not changed much since the days of the Song dynasty: cocks crowed and dogs barked, the boatmen sang as they plied their oars, and the landscape of waterways and mountains had remained the same for generation after generation.
The “Mayuan” of the poem is the largest of the valleys of Magu Mountain, and legend has it that this is where Magu, the Hemp Goddess, practiced Daoism. Magu was a legendary Daoist immortal, apparently just a girl of eighteen or nineteen when she saw with her own eyes the bed of the East Sea rise up and turn into dry land and mulberry fields three times. No doubt I was influenced by the legend, because to my mind there was a cosmic feel about the Mayuan valley.
There was another reason why Mayuan was special to me: the land was very ­fertile—it was where the so-­called silver pearl or cold water white rice was cultivated—­and my mother bought a piece of land there and put the title deed in my name. I never saw it firsthand but my father told me it was about twenty mu (three acres). Mayuan valley was also where my father’s father was buried. After my mother died, she was buried beside my grandfather, to his left, in a slightly smaller grave. In 1958, the local government built a reservoir in the valley; the mulberry fields really did become an azure sea, and the two graves vanished beneath its waters.
For ordinary people in Nancheng, life was as lively as it always had been in such fertile regions. My grandfather wrote a poem about it:

The husband has gone to Ningzhou to buy green tea, the wife plants new squash behind the ferry landing.
The boy, with no work to do, rows to a mossy bank by night, lights pine resin,
plays at will-­o’-­the-­wisp.

There were four distinct seasons in Nancheng. In the words of the Song dynasty monk-­poet Hui Kai: “White flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, cool breezes in summer, snow in winter. If you have no cares, then all the seasons are good.” A child has no cares, and, during holidays, times really were good. Whether it was the Grave-­Sweeping Festival, the Start of Summer, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Double Seventh, the Midautumn Festival, or the Double Ninth, there would be much more food and drink than normal. And this was probably the chief reason why we children loved festivals.

In Nancheng county, there was a traditional way of celebrating the Start of Summer Festival, called “Push into Summer.” As the rhyme went: “Push hard into summer, push hard into summer, raise your energy.” The character 냑, cheng, which Nancheng folk pronounced with the fourth tone, meant “push in hard.” The grown-­ups would tell us, laughing: “You kids can eat as much as you like today, it’s Push into Summer day. But after today, no more stuffing your faces!” After the Start of Summer Festival, the weather got a lot hotter and we ate less, and had lighter meals. The festival was marked by another folk custom too. In my family, it was called “the weigh-­in”: the cook and the driver brought out an enormous balance scales, and we boys, Third Brother and I, and Qingzeng and Shao­zeng (my older brother’s sons), were all put on it to be weighed. When summer was over, we were weighed again, we never knew quite why. I imagine that since we ate less in summer, we lost weight and were at risk of falling ill, and this was a way of confirming that we were in good health.
Girls did not need to be weighed, so my niece Yunqin was able to avoid the weigh-­in.
At the Dragon Boat Festival, according to the county annals, there used to be dragon boat races held along the river by the Peace Bridge. They must have been lively affairs, but sadly I never saw them myself. The Dragon Boat Festival lye zongzi dumplings, however, left a big impression on me. In my family, we used to have something else for breakfast, and then eat our zongzi and hard-­boiled eggs and garlic tops at noon. Lye water, made by filtering water through rice straw ash, was added to the glutinous rice grains. The dumplings were made by wrapping the rice in leaves and tying them tightly with string. These were then put in to cook. When they were soft, the dumplings were thick and solid, pale yellow in color. We ate them dipped in brown sugar, and they were indescribably delicious. Mei­tang and I both used to eat these when we were little, but for decades after we came to Shanghai, we never tasted them. Then in 2003, quite by chance, I saw them on sale in the Fuhua Lou store near our home and quickly bought some to share with Mei­tang. At that time, we felt that there was not enough lye in them, and they were not as tasty and sticky as they had been back home.
The evening of the Midautumn Festival, our family put a square table in the courtyard, covered by a crimson tablecloth on which were laid incense sticks, candles, and fruit. The centerpiece of course was the mooncakes. Nancheng mooncakes were thin and slightly flattened, about the diameter of a rice bowl, although there were bigger ones too. They were filled with rock candy, red and green candied fruit strips, walnuts, and ground-­up melon seeds. White sesame seeds were scattered on top, and the character for month, 墩, was written in black sesame seeds. If the mooncakes were a larger size, then the four characters for “Midautumn Mooncake,” 櫓헬墩깰, were written on them. They were hard and sweet, and had their own special flavor.
The festival that we children most enjoyed was Chinese New Year. For a whole month beforehand, the family was busy making preparations. First, we bought fish and meat for salting and curing. The food was prepared, and the house swept and cleaned, and every member of the family got new clothes. My little brother and I had long silk gowns made for us, generally in plain dark blue or green.
The evening of the twenty-­third day of the twelfth lunar month, incense and candles were lit and my father would lead my brothers and me to the kitchen to pay our respects to the kitchen god. We set off firecrackers and scattered short lengths of rice straw mixed with millet. The belief was that the kitchen god worked there all through the year, keeping a close eye on what we did and how we behaved, until on this evening he got on his horse and rode up into the sky to deliver his report to the Jade Emperor. These broken bits of rice straw and millet were meant to feed his horse on its journey.
This was a solemn ceremony, with the adults of the family calling out, “Ah . . . lu-­lu-­lu . . .” as they flung the straw into the air to encourage the horse to eat its fill and get the journey off to a good start.
We also made offerings to the kitchen god, including some of the local malt sugar. Malt sugar, made from rice, and sticky and sweet, was designed to sweeten his words in his report about us, so it was essential. All the same, to make quite sure he did not forget, we pasted reminders to the left and right of his effigy. The couplets read:
When you go to heaven, talk of our good deeds;
When you return to earth, bring us peace.
On the twenty-­fourth of the twelfth lunar month, called the “little year,” we ate vegetarian dishes and made offerings to the ancestors. By this time, we had been busy making preparations for two weeks or more, and everything was largely ready, so we could begin to enjoy the New Year celebrations.
For us children, this was the most enjoyable time of all—­there was the delicious anticipation of a holiday that was imminent but had not yet arrived.
At the “little year,” we were always given a bowl of “scalded meat and thread noodles” to eat. Thread noodles, a kind of vermicelli, and the meat, in the form of small meatballs, were placed in boiling water, then taken off the flame and served the instant they were cooked. Simple but good. These noodles are what I remember best of the “little year.”