Hero of one of China’s most enduring love stories dies with the woman he lost for over 50 years by his side
Tale of couple who were separated for over five decades had touched the hearts of a nation when they were finally reunited in 2010
A Chinese man who touched the hearts of many when he married the love of his life after being separated for over 50 years has died at the age of 90.
Yuan Dibao died peacefully on Thursday in Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian in the company of his family and his wife Danny Li, according to a report in the Haixi Morning Daily newspaper.
Yuan and Li made headlines in mainland media in 2010 when they were reunited in Xiamen after spending over five decades apart and married days later.
Yuan first met Li in Zhejiang Medical College in 1953 when Yuan was a medical student and Li was a Russian language teacher.
Li, who was the daughter of a Chinese art professor from Hangzhou and a French mother, was born in Beijing and was proficient not just in Mandarin but also in French, English and Russian.
“She dressed in a one-piece, like a goddess walking in the wind, and we were like bumpkins that couldn’t keep our eyes off her,” Yuan told Life Week magazine in 2012.
Yuan, the son of a pastor in Xiamen, was already married to a woman his family had lined up for him.
But despite this he grew close to his Russian teacher and the pair spent more and more time together despite the strong social taboos against a romance between teacher and student.
One day the pair went on a hiking trip in Hangzhou during which Yuan sang a song. Li replied with a Russian song of her own, although Yuan did not understand all the words. But when he got home and looked them up.
“The lyrics were like this: ‘riverside in the field, flowers of strawberry blossom; a young man took my true heart, but I can’t tell him, and I can’t reveal all my heart’,” Yuan told Life Week. “At that moment I understood her heart.”
But he told her that he felt duty bound to stay with his wife and so, despairing of ever being able to marry the man she loved, Li decided to flee the turmoil of the Mao Zedong era and went to live in Lyon in France.
The couple continued to write to each other but at some point during the Cultural Revolution their letters started to be returned and they lost contact.
Yuan, who worked in an epidemic prevention centre in Xiamen, had three sons with his wife, who died of cancer in 1994.
Finally, in the spring of 2010, Yuan shared the love story with one of his daughters-in-law and told her about his regrets.
The daughter-in-law encouraged Yuan to write a letter to Li’s last known address in France.
“She told me that French people don’t usually move so I wrote five letters, including one in Chinese to Danny, one letter to Danny’s relatives,” Yuan said in the interview.
“Why five letters? Because if the address was wrong, I think the postman would have been really curious why this person sent five letters. He would probably have opened the letter and helped me to find Danny.”
Against all the odds, Yuan received a reply from Li just 17 days after sending the first letter.
After learning that Li had remained single, Yuan, with the full support of his family proposed to her, and she said yes.
By the time they were reunited, Li had to use a hearing aid to communicate, but his favourite thing was to sing the song, One Day When We Were Young, to Li, just as they did in the old days in Hangzhou.
Its lyrics go:
“One day when we were young,
That wonderful morning in May,
You told me you loved me,
When we were young one day.”