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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

David M. Jacobson
Son-in-law and friend

Yang Xianyi was a monumental man. Although that word is most often used of achievements or architecture, there was something about Xianyi, the man, that was truly monumental. He bridged many cultures and several pivotal ages. One is hard pressed to find another person who reflected the turning of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and across the vast divide of East and West. Xianyi was erudite in so many things: Greek and Roman history, medieval French, and, of course classical Chinese. He was also a great prankster and a poet.

I met Yang Xianyi in London in 1984. He and Gladys were staying at a mediocre B&B and I was on my way to Jordan, passing through to visit a friend. I was also on my way to be vetted by my future father- and mother-in-law. It was a typical Xianyi encounter: to the point and with the stamp of approval sealed by a glass of scotch. In the parlance of young people these days, it was awesome.

Yang Xianyi would not have wished this event to be a maudlin affair, so I will only add a few short addenda to what is said at this memorial.

Over the course of twenty-five years, I came to love and admire this gentle egoist. He was as self-assured as any person I have known and deserved every one of his accolades. He did not flinch from confrontation, but at the same time preferred and meted out compromise as merited by each situation. Xianyi was not perfect. If he set his mind to an opinion that was wrong, it would sometimes take many years for him to release his grip on the mistake. This, however, is the normal recalcitrance of human nature and Xianyi was no less a man for it.

For the last ten years of his life, Yang Xianyi and we lived together as a typical Chinese family of three generations under one roof: he, his daughter and I, and our son. It was a splendid time.

The passing of Yang Xianyi was simple and peaceful—befitting his life. But we miss his presence in our home. Such is life; such is death.