CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Caroline Blunden

For me Yang Xianyi personified Chinese Culture. It was as if thousands of years of Chinese Culture had been distilled into the person of Yang Xianyi.

I first met the Yangs when I was a student in Beijing at The Central Academy of Fine Art in the late seventies. Xianyi happened to have studied with the poet Edmund Blunden who was a distant relative of mine. Any link with Edmund Blunden was good enough for Xianyi, and he and Gladys immediately took me under their wings—much in the same way Edmund Blunden took Xianyi under his wing some forty years before.

Xianyi was important to me because he gave me my Chinese name—Bai Lan—White Orchid. He and Gladys invited me to dinner with Chang Renxia (a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Art) and over a bottle of whiskey came up with my name! It is important to me because I have traded under the name Blunden Oriental since then introducing contemporary Chinese Painting to the UK and elsewhere. Both Xianyi and Gladys believed in what I was doing and gave me the courage to do it, and for that I am forever grateful.

Back in Beijing in the late seventies there was time to sit and talk. I used to visit the Yangs in their home near the Foreign Languages Press. They lived on the ground floor in a a dreary four storey block. I remember clambering over heaps of coal and rubble in the courtyard to get there. Everything seemed grey. No color, no light as I struggled with my bike towards the distant figure of Yang Xianyi who seemed like a beacon in the dark. The flat was large and sparse with high ceilings and old leather sofas and armchairs. The Yangs warmth and welcome far outshone the dreariness of it all. We sat talking until the early hours under paintings by Huang Yongyu—a lotus blowing in the wind symbolizing hope in adversity, a Tiger painted in the shape of a bottle (a tribute to alcohol according to Gladys) and a woodblock print of Premier Zhou Enlai. Conversation and drink flowed and I never had any problem getting over the mounds of cabbages and coal on the way home!

My twin sister Jane met up with Xianyi on an overseas trip to Dublin in the Autumn of l980 when he was invited to Dublin by the Irish-Chinese Cultural Society. As Jane recounted to me her abiding memory is of a late night walk following an official dinner. At Xianyi's suggestion they left the table early 'for a bit of real night life!' . . . it was late, it was dark and they both had downed more wine than was good for them . . . nonetheless they steered each other down Grafton Street—a past the General Post Office and across the river Liffey—linking arms and singing revolutionary songs at the tops of their voices. They ended up singing 'Danny Boy' standing under Nelson's column, which they repeated time after time . . . then drove through the Phoenix Park to Knockmaroon where her friend Kieran Guinness offered them more hospitality. Xianyi was at his best . . . his stories, wit and wisdom literally lit up the room. She returned Xianyi to his hotel as dawn broke and from what I gathered later he got into some hot water with the authorities.

They say the best English is spoken in Dublin . . . but personally I liked Xianyi's version. I loved his turn of phrase, his humour, the sound of his voice and his graceful and elegant gestures. It was a sheer joy to listen to him. Both Gladys and Xianyi have enriched my life and through their work the lives of thousands of others. Thank you Xienyi for building your bridge between East and West—you're my hero!