Living happily ever after

After 55 years apart, a couple’s love story begins again

In the autumn of 1953, French-Chinese teacher Danny Li fell in love with handsome young student Yuan Dibao. Then fate forced the two apart – she moved to France and he stayed in China. After hearing nothing from each other since the 1960s, the two miraculously made contact last year. They married in September and at ages 84 and 83, are now living happily ever after.

“It is like a dream. I never expected to see him ever again,” Li says.

“He is my first and only love. I will never regret loving him and keeping single all those years even if we didn’t reunite.”

Li was born in Beijing in 1927, to a French mother and Chinese father. At 24, she became one of the youngest teachers of Zhejiang Medical College at Hangzhou, and became well-known for her mastery of four languages – Chinese, English, Russian and French.

In 1953, Yuan, a 25-year-old freshman, entered her life and was the best student in her Russian class.

“He was a good person, very nice to others. All the students and teachers liked him very much,” Li says.

Li also discovered they both shared a Christian faith. Despite the prejudice against a relationship between a teacher and student, they grew close. Every time Yuan went to Li’s office, ostensibly to ask for help with studies, they would arrange their after-class dates.

The two spent a lot of time walking along the banks of the famous West Lake (see top picture). Yuan would often walk Li home and stay for a while. Her parents were open about their fondness for this polite and charming young man.

However, while Li thought she was in paradise, Yuan was torn between happiness and guilt.

Yuan was born in 1928 to a Protestant family in Fujian province. His father worked as a secretary and Chinese teacher in the British consulate and later became a missionary. Yuan later studied at a religious school and helped in his older brother’s clinic.

Yuan was already 25 when he was finally admitted to college in 1953 and was considered well past marriage age, so his family arranged that he marry his sister’s friend.

A year went by before Yuan told Li he had a wife – a woman toward whom he felt morally responsible to care for until her death.

Li was shocked and although she still loved Yuan, the couple broke up.

“We couldn’t build our happiness on the misfortune of an innocent woman,” Li says.

That was the last time they saw one another until their reunion in 2010.

In 1956, Li left with her family for Lyon, France, and wrote to Yuan. To her surprise, she received several letters over the next few days and they kept in touch through mail.

“His letters were a great comfort to me in those hard days of settling in France,” Li says.

French society was a foreign world to the Chinese-born woman and educational institutions refused to recognize her diplomas and certificates. Li also struggled to adapt socially.

In her eyes, she saw French relationships as too open and casual.

“These irresponsible relationships were unacceptable to me and I was afraid and refused going out with men,” she says.

Li learnt shorthand and typing, and finally became a secretary at an international trade company.

Meanwhile, Yuan graduated and worked in Xiamen.

In their letters, the two seldom mentioned hardship.

Yuan shared with Li his happiness over becoming a father, and Li sent him tins of baby milk powder and clothes, knowing these products were scarce in China at that time.

When the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976) started, Li’s letters were returned. To avoid causing any trouble to Yuan, she stopped writing but could not forget him.

“I could not start a new relationship, although there were many who knocked on my door,” she says. “I found his love for me most earnest, and felt no one else could match that.”

In 1976, as soon as she thought it was safe, Li wrote to Yuan’s workplace as before. But that letter, too, was returned.

The next contact between them occurred in May 2010.

During the 2010 Spring Festival (in late February), Ouyang Luying, Yuan’s third daughter-in-law, heard that her father-in-law had once dated a beautiful foreign teacher. Yuan’s wife had passed away in 1994 and Ouyang encouraged him to write.

Yuan posted Li letters every second day and also wrote to her relatives lest she had passed away.

At last, a letter arrived from France. With trembling hands, Yuan opened it. Seeing the familiar handwriting, he thought, “Thank God! She’s alive!”

The envelope contained a photo of Li and a three-page letter. In it Li took Yuan through all that had happened in her life.

In 1974, nine years after their last correspondence, Li earned the equivalent of a master’s in Chinese and soon got a job as a Chinese teacher at a university in Lyon where she also earned a doctorate.

She retired in 1992 as an associate professor from the university, and then worked as vice-president in a non-profit organization, which helped the university’s Chinese students.

She remained single and lived alone in a house her grandparent left her after her parents died.

On May 1, she saw Yuan’s letter waiting for her when she returned home. “I didn’t reply immediately, because I couldn’t believe it was true,” Li says.

She sat holding his letter in her backyard from noon till midnight. When another letter arrived the next day, Li was finally convinced this was no dream.

The couple started exchanging letters. Sometimes, with help from Ouyang, they would talk over the phone but preferred letters as Yuan suffers a mild hearing loss.

“Ouyang called me ‘Danny Mom’ during her first phone call. I had never been called mom before. I can’t describe how I felt!” Li says.

A month later, Yuan invited Li to Xiamen, where Yuan and the family met her at the airport. Yuan held 55 roses to mark the years they’ve been apart.

Li accepted Yuan’s offer of marriage, and they registered their wedding on Sept 21, the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally a time for family reunions in China.

Yuan’s sons held a big wedding ceremony for them five days later.

They now live with Yuan’s third son and every morning they take a stroll along the city’s waterways, hand in hand.

“What is gone is gone; we want to be with each other for the rest of our lives,” Li says.

“I have poor sight, and he has a problem with hearing.

“I’m his ears, and he is my eyes.”

 Source: China Daily

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