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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

John Gittings

Xianyi was a scholar who 'stayed behind' in 1949, and he exemplified the best qualities of the Chinese intellectuals who decided to live under the leadership of the Communist Party: patriotism, principle and modesty to the point of self-deprecation. That initial decision was made to seem very simple: 'I was so disgusted with what I had seen and experienced under the KMT regime', Xianyi would explain, 'I thought that living under any other government would be better.' Yet like so many things in their life, it was both very simple and very difficult. There were plenty of people urging flight—and the Yangs even had seats on a plane out from Nanjing. And yet they stayed.

Xianyi's account of his time in captivity was also deceptively simple. He had two favourite stories: first how he regretted above all leaving the apartment, when he was arrested, in his slippers. Was this really, we may ask, the worst aspect of the whole experience? And the second story was how he deduced from following the news while in prison that Lin Biao was no longer Chairman Mao's chosen comrade-in-arms. To the amazement of his fellow-inmates, Xianyi had torn the Lin Biao inscription out of his Little Red Book before the prison authorities came round to do so. (Xianyi could be legitimately proud of this China-watching feat!). One thing does come over very clearly from his account of the years in jail. It might be claimed that Mao was 'at ease with the masses'—but Xianyi really was, and was soon on very good terms with his fellow-prisoners.

I vividly recall one of my first visits to the Yangs at their apartment, in late April 1976 during the final ultra-left offensive while Mao was dying. Though allowed to return to work, they were still very vulnerable. Yet this did not stop Xianyi from denouncing 'that woman', Madame Mao (Jiang Qing), as he drank successive glasses of whatever was available. 'Do shut up, old man', Gladys remonstrated, gesturing at the phone which was no doubt bugged, 'or we'll go back to prison'. Xianyi raised his glass towards the telephone, saying: 'They can listen and I can speak.'

When to speak and when to be silent was always a matter of judgment. In the late 1980s there was an exciting spirit of reform in the air, encouraged by Hu Yaobang. In spite of Hu's dismissal, the Yangs still believed that 'Old Deng' had good intentions though he had been obliged to give ground to the Party dinosaurs. I remember Xianyi telling me with some amusement about what was known as the Incident of the Five Gentlemen when Wu Zuguang and others were asked to resign from the Party—and Wu proposed to Xianyi that they should now devote their time to collecting essays on the pleasure of drinking.

Xianyi, who had joined the Party earlier in the 1980s, was not asked to resign at this time. But two years later came the end of illusion in Tiananmen Square: as Xianyi would say, 'If I had done nothing but remain silent, I would feel ashamed.' And in interviews with the foreign media, he had no hesitation in denounced the regime as fascist. It was time to 'sweep away the muck'; it was time to speak.

Later when Xianyi had come back from hiding, he put in his resignation from the Party, and was visited (as he recounts in White Tiger) by a senior cultural figure who asked him not to resign but to remain. In traditional style, he was approached three times, and he declined three times. However, he would make it clear that while he had no liking for Stalinism or Maoism, 'I still had faith in socialism'.

Beyond the humour and the self-deprecation, there was courage and there was principle. As a young Chinese journalist said to me after reading the story of Xianyi's life and death, 'I have not done enough: from now on, I must be braver.'