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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Delia Davin

I have been asked to talk about Yang Xianyi's family and in particular his marriage.

Xianyi's childhood was hardly, one would think, an ideal preparation for a marriage to a strong-minded woman and modern family life. His father died when he was five. He was brought up as the treasured son in a household with two mothers (the number one wife and his own mother) and four sisters. He did not go to school until he was twelve and never learnt to ride a bike because his number one mother didn't want him to run any risks. By his own admission he was spoilt. Yet, as an adult, Xianyi was capable of great affection and love.

It is often recounted that the marriage met family opposition. This is true. Gladys' parents, though fond of Xianyi, initially opposed the marriage because their experience of living in China had convinced them that the children of mixed marriages suffered. Xianyi's mother wept when she heard of the engagement. Yet Gladys and Xianyi developed close ties with each other's families. Gladys always remembered with gratitude the welcome that her mother-in-law gave her, and when the couple eventually married, in a joint ceremony with Xianyi's sister Amy, the brides wore dresses made by Xianyi's mother.

In Beijing from the 1950s, except during their imprisonment, they saw Xianyi's mother at least weekly. As Xianyi's mother was only eighteen years older than him and lived to a ripe old age, she remained a presence for almost the whole of their married lives. Contact with Gladys' family was mostly limited to very regular letters until the 1970s; thereafter Xianyi greatly enjoyed the visits they were able to exchange with Hilda and the rest of the family in England. He and Gladys were also deeply grateful for all that Gladys' sister Hilda did for their son when he lived with her in London.

Xianyi thought that the war years in the interior had been particularly difficult for Gladys, but I can really only comment on the 1960s onwards. Certainly, in a very closed society having a foreign parent was not always easy for their three children, especially not for their son, Yang Ye. Gladys and Xianyi always felt that he got into a less good university than he should have done because of his mother. Gladys was particularly conscious of this and had a special affection for the writer Han Suyin, then resident abroad but a frequent visitor to China, because she had described so well the difficulties of growing up in a mixed family in China in an earlier era. Xianyi had quite a brusque manner with each other and sometimes indulged in fierce teasing. Later they shocked non-Chinese friends by addressing each other as old man and old woman. She would often reproach him for his feudal background and he would criticise her missionary one.

Xianyi and Gladys shared a love of company, reading, and friendship. In a particularly closed time in China, they were open to ideas and literature from all over the world and made their flat a home from home for people of many nationalities. Xianyi liked the company of the foreign friends to whom he and Gladys were so hospitable. Their sociable style of life was certainly made easier by Gladys' foreign status, and salary and the comparatively spacious flat to which she was entitled. But Xianyi refused much of the privilege that Gladys as a foreigner could enjoy. He would not go to on seaside holidays to Beidaihe, or to the Friendship Shop where foreigners could purchase hard to obtain things, nor, until Gladys' health required the facilities it offered, would he go to the Friendship Hotel. He always insisted on paying the bill when eating out with foreign friends.

There was a comical side to being married to a foreigner. When some clothes were stolen from their clothesline in the early 1960s, Xianyi was told on no account to tell Gladys. It would look bad for China to admit there were still thieves. In fact, in those days of severe cloth rationing it would have been quite impossible to hide such a theft from the woman of the house. Similarly when a secret partial census was carried out in 1964, Xianyi was given the household return to fill in, but told not to let his wife know about it. Perhaps the most surreal example of the attempt to make Xianyi act as 'the Chinese host' towards his own wife came when the couple were to be released from prison in 1972. He was let out several days earlier than she was so that he could clean up their flat in preparation for her return.

In fact, Xianyi's domestic skills were limited. When the children were young they employed an aiyi to care for each child and in later years, except when the Cultural Revolution made it impossible, they always had an aiyi to cook. Gladys swept, dusted and gardened; activities about which Xianyi tended to be affectionately mocking. She also made a lemon drink for the family, to supply the vitamins she felt were often rather short in their diet. But when aiyi took a holiday over the Chinese New Year, it was Xianyi who stepped into the breach, usually by walking to the nearest restaurant to bring back dishes. On one occasion however he brought back donkey meat that he proceeded to stew for many hours. It was not a great success, being very tough. We joked that it must have been a labour hero. Later, when the free markets opened, and Xianyi was rather less busy, he became the main family shopper and delighted in returning with delicious novelties for everyone to eat.

Xianyi cared deeply about his children and grandchildren. He was very good at playing and joking with children. When I had my daughter with me in Beijing in the 1970s he allowed her to name him 'Funny Bunny' and to climb all over him. At Christmas, he walked right across town to the East City find her a small tree that he carried back and helped her to decorate it with cotton wool snow.

The mental illness of Yang Ye, the Yangs' son, must have been extraordinarily painful for Xianyi because it involved his complete rejection of his father, indeed in his angry denial of all things Chinese, Ye would not remain in the same room as Xianyi. All this was acted out over many months in a small flat yet Xianyi bore it patiently. After Ye had departed for England, Xianyi buried his own distress to support Gladys as best he could—as I am sure he also did after Ye's subsequent suicide though I was not there to see it. In her final long illness he cared for her with extraordinary patience, affection and realism.

Xianyi was proud of his daughters and their achievements. He spent his last years living with his youngest, Yang Zhi and her husband and son Ian—very much at the centre of their family life. Zhi's other son Mingming came over often, as did Xianyi's sister Amy and other relatives. He greatly enjoyed visits from his elder daughter Yang Ying, who had settled in the US and her children Huang Yue and Huang Xia.

Xianyi outlived Gladys by almost ten years. The raw distress that he had shown in the first years after her death did ease as he learnt to live without her. But he always gave the impression of feeling incomplete—reflected in his poem when he depicted them as two swans who should have flown away together. They had shared love, family, work and politics against one of the most turbulent backgrounds of the twentieth century and in a very real sense each had been made by the other. We should remember them with pleasure.