For four years Rao Pingru, now 92 years old, filled 18 albums with paintings of his wife and their days together, from her childhood days to their wedding day, to the days as she lay dying.
The purpose: to commemoråate his wife, Mao Meitang, and their nearly 60-year marriage, 22 years of which they spent apart. He toiled in the countryside. She did manual labor on construction sites in Shanghai.
They were only allowed to meet once a year for the Chinese Lunar New Year, but they were finally reunited in Shanghai, where they spent 21 years together.
Their lives and marriage spanned years of social upheaval, but there were happy times as well, and five children. Mao died in 2008 after a long illness, and that’s when Rao began to paint his memories of her.
More than 300 of his watercolors, plus narrative and poems, are compiled in the recently published book “Our Story” (Chinese).
“There is nothing you can do about death, nevertheless, when you paint everything about the one you love, she will be there forever,” Rao told Shanghai Daily in an interview about his love story that endured separation and hardship. “It’s only when you started to miss someone that you realize the ocean is not deep enough.”
Drawing and writing eased Rao’s pain, made his recollections more vivid, and created a gift for his grandchildren.
Rao was born into a well-to-do family in Jiangxi Province in 1922. His father was a lawyer and his grandfather was a member of the Imperial Academy of China’s eminent intellectuals.
By the age of 18 he had a personal driver and maids and cooks at his disposal.
“I barely needed to do anything, even a wash basin was presented to me every morning so I could wash my face,” he recalled.
He would pay dearly for his life of privilege, as would his wife, who also came from a wealthy family.
In 1940 when Rao was just 18, he entered the Republic of China Military Academy and later fought as an officer in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
In several battles, he was nearly killed. “I was not scared or panicked in the face of death. Why? If you are destined to lose your life, there’s no way to escape,” he said.
Rao was lucky.
In 1946 he met his wife-to-be Mao while he was still in the army. He was 24 and she was 22. In his book he paints the moment he first saw her, putting on lipstick as she stood at the window. “I fell in love at first sight,” he said.
They courted. He played the harmonica and she sang. Too shy to confess his love outright, he sang “Rose, Rose, I Love You” to her in a park. They got married.
In 1951 the couple moved to Shanghai where Rao worked as an editor and accountant. He earned around 240 yuan (US$38) a month, a very good salary at the time.
They had been together for about 10 years, when Rao, the former Kuomintang officer, was sent to the countryside in Anhui Province for “reeducation.”
There he would stay for 22 years. They wrote “thousands” of letters to each other, he said.
Mao did manual labor and reared their five children. In one job, she carried 10-kilogram bags of cement to build the steps of the Shanghai Natural History Museum.
“Every time I passed the museum, I paused. I didn’t know which stairs were made with the cement she carried,” Rao said.
By the time Rao finally was allowed to return to Shanghai in 1979, he was already 57.
“We finally got to live a normal and happy life,” he said.
They were together for 21 years, and for much of that time he worked as an editor at a publishing house of scientific materials.
“People go to Paris, London or the Maldives. They buy roses and presents, thinking those travels and things are romantic. But there’s more. Living together with bright windows and clean tables and enjoying family life is romantic,” he said. “I think I am quite romantic to live a life in a poetic way.”
In 1992, Mao was diagnosed with diabetes and uremia. She began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
For four years, Rao awakened at 5am and performed dialysis four times a day. Her mental condition deteriorated and she once accused Rao of hiding her grandchild from her. Rao sat on the floor and wept. “That day I finally realized I was going to lose her forever,” he said.
She was seldom lucid, but he carried out all her wishes.
He remembers the minute she died, 4:23pm on March 19, 2008, five months from their 60th wedding anniversary.
“There is no pure happiness in life, happiness is always accompanied by sorrow,” he philosophizes in his book. “We had a rough journey and finally found peace when we were getting old. Tortured by disease, we walked to the end of our lives.”
Now Rao practices tai chi every morning, paints and practices calligraphy for two hours, and plays with his cat. Two years ago he taught himself to play the piano.
“I have seen many changes in the world in my lifetime, but I don’t want to think too much about it. I want to lead a life that’s simple and pure,” he said. China’s new direction and development is very satisfying, he said.
“I do believe in fate. Of my friends at the military academy, some are billionaires, some are key officials in Taiwan. My billionaire friend still owes me 200 yuan.”
He went to the piano and played “Waterloo Bridge” (“Auld Lang Syne”). He quoted wife Mao’s favorite lyrics, including “We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld land syne ...”
Rao lamented that today the meaning of true love seems to have deteriorated.
“Now I see many standards for choosing a partner, such as ‘handsome and rich’ and ‘pretty and wealthy.’ Why don’t they put moral character as the first priority? Love requires sincerity, dedication and sacrifice.”