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