A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Anatomical

Last weekend was the annual Doors Open Day, when buildings not normally open to the public let people into visit. I’m still sorting a stack of photographs I shot as we tramped all round town, from designer make-overs by local architectural practises in old mews buildings to places like the observatory on Calton Hill and the Royal College of Physicians in the New Town. I’ll post a few more when I get time to sort them out, but I thought I’d kick off with these few shots taken in their two libraries; these are rare 17th century medical volumes, which the College Fellow on duty in the library was kind enough to let me photograph as long as I obviously refrained from using the flash (in stark contrast to the folks at Scottish Heritage who didn’t allow any photography even of the Georgian rooms, which seems extremely backward to me if you are inviting in visitors, especially if you are a public body – bad marks to SH, big thumbs up to the RCP who really made an effort to make visitors welcome and encouraged photo-taking).


(click the pics to see the larger versions on the Woolamaloo Flickr stream)

Apologies for the reflections here, but as the books were under glass there wasn’t really anyway round them – it was either reflections of the lights or stand right over it and get my camera in the reflections, but the quality of the draughtmanship here was far too good not to try taking a pic. These books pre-date the Act of Union between Scotland and England.

Just look at the detail in this anatomical study of the human skeleton and musculature; the cross hatching and shading is amazing. More so when you consider this is around three centuries old and an artist created this by hand and another artist would then have laboriously created a negative inscribed into a copper plate for printing. Books like this, being disseminated all over Europe by groups like the Royal College, are physical artefacts of the birth of the modern era, the move from superstition to reason and science, exploring the natural world and our own physiques to find new wonder even the greatest minds of Classical Antiquity could never have dreamed of. They are also gorgeous works of craftsmanship and art. A modern Gray’s Anatomy (a standard text for most doing medical degrees) may be more informative and accurate, but it lacks the elegance and beauty of this work.