Brush captures enduring love
Weeks after his wife died, Rao Pingru started to paint pictures of her.
From the first time he saw her putting on makeup in a mirror, to their wedding at which they promised "to love and cherish", to her lying in bed on her final days — all the images of their nearly 60-year marriage have been food for his art.
"When I create her with brushstrokes, she is there, and our story doesn't perish," said Rao, 91, a retired military man and former editor.
Rao Ruping, 91, displays hand-painted albums at his Shanghai home (right). Rao, a retired military man, has filled 18 albums of drawings in the past four years. PHOTO BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY
He has filled 18 albums of drawings in the past four years, which he called Our Story.
At first, the Jiangxi native was only trying to pass time and leave something so his grandchildren could "know about their grandparents" who have been through war, poverty, sickness and, perhaps most importantly, love.
Rao met Meitang as a blind date when he came back from war in 1946.
"It's a strange thing. You just have to meet the right person to have that feeling," he said, thinking of how lovely she was.
During their early dates, Rao was too shy to say "the three words". Instead, he sang a pop song of the time, Rosemary, I Love You, to express his feelings, on a park bench in Nanchang, Jiangxi province.
The first two years of their marriage was "the sweetest time" of Rao's life, as he recalled, in spite of the turbulence following the war.
The couple adopted a happy-go-lucky policy wherever they traveled, worked and lived. They managed to escape robbery by hiding their possessions in tires while Rao was working in Guizhou province.
They teased each other about how poor they were at running an eatery, and found it fun and poetic living in a rooftop house that would shake on stormy days. "It's not hard if you don't think about it too much. We were content and happy with what we had."
In 1958, however, Rao, like thousands of other young people, was sent "to be reeducated" through labor.
For the next 22 years, the couple kept in touch mostly through correspondence, except for Rao's annual leave. They wrote about 1,000 letters over that time, about half of which are pasted in the albums.
"I had this wooden case with me at that time, for keeping letters from Meitang. I would take them out every once in a while and have a look," said Rao.
To increase the family income and raise their five kids, Meitang carried cement, 10 kilograms a bag, for the construction of the Shanghai Natural History Museum.
Rao said he pauses every time he walks past the museum now. "I don't know which step was made of the cement she carried, but I know she carried it for the kids, for the family, and suffered from a lifetime of waist pain, perhaps because of this."
In 1979, Rao returned to Shanghai and became a publishing editor. In 1992, Meitang was diagnosed with diabetes and later Parkinson's disease. Rao stopped working and walked Meitang through the last, and perhaps most painful stage, of her life.
He got up 5 am every day, combed her hair, washed her face, cooked, kept close records of her illness and coaxed her like a child, trying to satisfy whatever she asked.
According to Rao's granddaughter, he would ride his bicycle for hours to buy the rice cake Meitang said she wanted to eat. But when he was back, Meitang had already forgotten about it.
"We have been through all sorts of things. But when we finally settled down together at the end of life, we were again stricken by sickness," he said, quoting Yang Jiang, a famous Chinese scholar, who lost her husband to cancer.
On March 19, 2008, five months before their 60th wedding anniversary, Rao lost Meitang. "I was beside her, a few steps away. I think she saw me, and left a teardrop before she went," said Rao.
Rao made it to Meitang's bed as she passed away, feeling her hand getting cold in his. Rao cut a lock of her hair and kept it at home, tied with a red string.
"I had nothing to regret in my life, did nothing evil, except two things. I was not at my mom's bedside when she was gone, as I was in the war. And I put Meitang through too much misery during those 20 years," he said.
Rao now lives with a yellow cat in an apartment in Shanghai. He spends most of his time recalling their story and taking care of the cat.
The album will be published and put on store shelves in April.