Former premier Wen Jiabao, who once said he wished to be "forgotten" in retirement, has made a rare public gesture by praising a Sichuan artist's "heroic" painting of rescue efforts after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
"Thank you for recording those moments of tragedy and sorrow with images that touch heaven and earth with your paintbrush," Wen wrote in a short letter to Zhang Fangzhen, an oil painter from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, the Chongqing Morning Post reported yesterday.
The painting, Dawn, shows Wen standing among rescuers in the debris at Wenchuan in Sichuan province, talking to buried victims through a megaphone while medics and soldiers rush to the scene.
The earthquake left 88,000 people dead or missing.
Zhang finished the painting in June 2009 and used it as the main image in a set of calendars he printed and sent to friends
On September 1, he mailed one to Wen, the newspaper said.
The 79-year-old painter told the newspaper he never expected a reply from the former premier. But two weeks ago, on September 16, he received a two-page letter from Wen.
"It reminds me of the catastrophic disaster five years ago … and touches me with the great national spirit of fearlessness of hardship and sacrifice, of tenaciousness and of the courage to be victorious," Wen wrote.
The letter was the former premier's first foray into the public sphere since stepping down in March after 10 years in the role. During a visit to Thailand last November - four months before he left office - Wen mentioned in an address to members of the Chinese community in Bangkok that he wished "to be forgotten" after he retired.
"I hope everyone will forget me - that includes the Chinese people and overseas Chinese. Forget me," he said.
Within hours of the magnitude-8 earthquake striking Sichuan on May 12, 2008, Wen travelled to the area to comfort the victims, sending his popularity soaring and cementing his image as the kindly "Grandpa Wen".
However, Wen's critics lamented his failure to curb rampant corruption in local government, and the crackdown against activists who had sought help for parents of children who died when shoddily built schools and other public buildings collapsed during the quake.