CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 20, December 2009


Vale Yang Xianyi | China Heritage Quarterly

Vale: Yang Xianyi 楊憲益


Yang Xianyi, translator, poet, raconteur, friend and mentor, passed away on 23 November 2009 in Beijing. He was ninety-four years old.

The March 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly will pay tribute to the translators Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. That issue will take as its theme the heritage of Liu Ling (c.225-280 CE).

For the moment, in our grief we offer the following poem. I hope our readers will appreciate the spirit of seriousness and jocularity that it expresses, qualities we so fondly remember in Xianyi.—Geremie R. Barmé

Hymn to the Virtue of Wine
Liu Ling

There was a certain Mr. Great Man, for whom
Heaven and earth were but a morning’s span,
A myriad ages but a flash of time;
The sun and moon, a door and window’s eye,
The eight directions like a country lane.
He travelled without leaving a track or trace,
And domiciled in neither room nor hut;
For curtain—sky, and for a mat—the earth;
He let his fancy wander where it would.
At rest he grasped a goblet or a cup,
And moving, always carried jug or pot.
For wine, and wine alone, was all his lot.
How should he know about the rest?
Now there was
A certain noble duke, Lord High-and-Great,
And a retired scholar, Sir Silk Sash,
Who, hearing rumors of our hero’s ways,
Came to discuss with him the hows and whys.
Waving their sleeves and baring wide their breasts,
With wildly glaring eyes and gnashing teeth,
They lectured loud and long on rites and laws,
While rights and wrongs rose up like spears.
At this the Great Man
Took the jar and filled it at the vat,
Put cup to mouth and quaffed the lees;
Shook out his beard and sat, legs sprawled apart,
Pillowed on barm and cushioned on the dregs,
Without a thought, without anxiety,
His happiness lighthearted and carefree.
Now utterly bemused with wine,
Now absently awake,
He calmly listened, deaf to thunder’s crashing roar,
Or fixed his gaze, unseeing of Mt. Tai’s great hulk.
Of cold or heat he felt no fleshly pangs,
Of profit or desire no sensual stir;
He looked down on the myriad things, with all their fuss,
As on the Jiang or Han with floating weeds.
And those two stalwarts, waiting by his side—
How like to blacktail flies their busy buzz!
—from John Minford and Joseph S.M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, New York: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2000, vol.1, pp.471-72.
The following obituary for Xianyi was written by John Minford, translator and Sinologist and an old friend of the Yangs. It was published in The Times on 12 December 2009.

Other articles related to Xianyi’s passing include:

Yang Xianyi was one of China’s most fluent and prolific translators, both into and out of Chinese. He was also one of the very last of a generation of cultivated Chinese men of letters, able to express himself on a wide range of subjects in both English and Chinese, in both prose and verse, and in a variety of styles. He survived with serenity the harrowing ordeal of Chinese cultural and political life over the 60 years that followed “liberation”, always preserving his integrity, his humanity, his generosity and his irrepressibly mischievous sense of humour.

He was born in 1915 in Tianjin, the port city east of Beijing. His father, originally from an old mandarin family in Anhui province, had risen to become a prominent banker, head of the Tianjin branch of the Bank of China, and friend of many Chinese warlords and influential personalities. After studying at the Tianjin Anglo-Chinese College, Yang was sent to England in 1935, where he joined a small band of Chinese émigré intellectuals that included S. I. Hsiung (author of Lady Precious Stream), Chiang Yee (The Silent Traveller), Xiao Qian (The Harp with a Thousand Strings) and Qian Zhongshu (The City Besieged).

After several months of private tutoring in London, he took the exam for entry to Oxford, and in 1936 was admitted to Merton College, where he began studying classics (he later translated Homer and Aristophanes into Chinese). His iconoclasm was already apparent in his stated preference for the risqué writings of Apuleius and Petronius, as opposed to the regular fare of Virgil and Cicero. He completed the classical mods programme, gaining third-class honours, and in 1938 switched to French; he protested that he far preferred medieval to modern French and in later years translated Le Chanson de Roland into Chinese. Finally, he transferred to English literature, striking up a friendship with one of his teachers, the poet Edmund Blunden, and eventually graduating in that subject with a fourth. With characteristic wit, he commented in his autobiography, White Tiger, published in Hong Kong in 2002, that a fourth was ‘a rare beast. Each year there were only one or two honours students who got a fourth. It was even rarer than getting a First.’

During his five-year stay in Europe, he enjoyed himself enormously, spending freely, travelling widely and earning something of a reputation as a playboy. At Oxford he met his future wife, Gladys Tayler, who was also studying French, before herself switching to Chinese. This was during the days of the Sino-Japanese War, and they both identified strongly with the Chinese patriotic cause. They returned to China in 1940 to begin a long career as China’s pre-eminent husband-and-wife team of translators, working first for the Nationalist Government in Chongqing and Nanjing and later, after the communist victory, for the state-run Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. They produced a steady stream of translations of very high quality, from Chinese literature ancient and modern. They were an exemplary team, Gladys’s knowledge of Chinese, her skilful native command of English and down-to-earth realism complementing Yang’s wide reading in European and Chinese languages and literatures ancient and modern, his flair for the Chinese language and his impish and quickwitted sense of what the text was saying. He played a crucial role in the establishment of the periodical Chinese Literature, which from the 1950s became the main international vehicle for translations of Chinese fiction and poetry, both classical and contemporary, and which almost single-handedly enabled the world to keep track of what was happening on the Chinese literary scene. Despite their highly independent minds, he and his wife remained committed to the cause of the ‘New China’ to the bitter end.

Their loyalty was poorly rewarded. During the years 1968-72 they were arrested and held in solitary confinement on suspicion of spying. Towards the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), they were allowed to return to their devoted labours at the Foreign Languages Press, only to learn shortly afterwards, in 1979, of the devastating news of the suicide in London of their only son, Yang Ye.

In the relatively liberal 1980s they presided in their Beijing apartment over an extraordinary literary coterie, one in which writers and artists of an older generation gently nurtured the tender shoots of young creativity, while foreign scholars and translators were warmly welcomed and encouraged to strike up acquaintances with their Chinese counterparts—and all this to a background of infinite glasses of whisky and gin. As the world was to witness only too vividly, this little golden era ended badly on June 4, 1989: the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In the days that followed Yang was foremost among his countrymen in publicly condemning, in his words, the ‘fascist actions of the party elders’. In a number of extraordinary TV interviews broadcast across the world, he spoke out fearlessly (in his impeccable Oxford English) in defence of democracy and against the corruption of the party. Immediately after the shootings he was obliged to flee Beijing and go into hiding. Perhaps because of his international reputation, he survived the subsequent purge, although he was obliged to leave the Communist Party, which he had joined in 1985.

Although much of his work with his wife was done under intense pressure, and often the actual choice of titles to be translated was not theirs but was dictated by the current party agenda, they succeeded in producing a body of fine translations. They especially enjoyed translating the drier canon, anthologies of medieval short stories, the 18th-century satirical novel The Scholars, the modern essays and short stories of Lu Xun. One of their earliest collaborations, done in rhyming verse in their Oxford days, was a selection from the great medieval poet (and wine-bibber) Tao Yuanming. One poem, in their version, ends with lines that seem to foreshadow their own lives: ‘If such a fate is destined to be mine, Let us drink to it with a cup of wine.’

Yang had been deeply saddened by the death of his wife in 1999. He had been in poor health for many years before his death, but to the last he remained alert, spoke with his characteristic wit and smiled his constant smile.

He is survived by two daughters.