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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Andy McKillop

I was introduced to Xianyi and Gladys by John Gittings in April 1976 when I was visiting Beth in Beijing and trying to arrange a job there for the following year. We had a brief meeting at the Yangs' house at the Foreign Languages Press compound and Xianyi said he would speak to some colleagues there to see what could be done. Shortly afterwards, I had an invitation to come to work at the Press as a polisher in the English Books Department. And so, about 10 days after Mao's death in September that year, I joined the Press and became a colleague of Xianyi and Gladys. It was clear that they were held in great respect there—and they were popular. Xianyi was generous in his advice about my work and soon our friendship began.

At that time the Press was in transition—the Gang of Four had just been arrested and the last traces of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were disappearing. This spilled over quickly into our work at the Press—immediately there were fewer books about barefoot doctors and more about China's history. It was possible, again, to work on and publish some more literature for literature's sake. Xianyi was the principal translator at Chinese Literature and the magazine published a fine body of good work there.

Over the following couple of months, Beth and I began to visit Xianyi and Gladys regularly on a weekly basis—I remember it as every Wednesday evening—where we would relax, talking about the changes China is undergoing, about work, about life in general; and we drank and smoked and sang (I had a guitar at the time and Xianyi was keen to learn Beatles songs, along with some of the Irish and Scottish folk songs he remembered). We cherish these evenings—Xianyi and Gladys were so hospitable and such good company.

Beth and I returned to Britain at the end of 1977 but stayed in touch with the Yangs—principally through letters from Gladys. And so it was through Gladys we learned about Xianyi's promotion to being editor of Chinese Literature and about the excitement of Panda Books that Xianyi had instigated and was overseeing. At that time two other friends—Pat Wilson and Carol Murray—worked with Xianyi at the Press and they were able to see firsthand the great job Xianyi was doing with Panda, publishing some older translations that had been banned during the Cultural Revolution but also publishing and championing newer, younger writers, and many younger women writers. It was an exciting and fruitful time for the Press, thanks in large part to Xianyi and Gladys.

I began to visit Beijing again in 2004 once a year to do some training or other editorial work at the Press. I always visited Xianyi and the family and I had the great good fortune of being able to stay with them for a week in December 2008—Xianyi was in wonderful form; Yang Zhi and David had just about retired from their own company; and Yang Ying was also there, on a visit from California. Once again, what struck was the warmth and generosity that emanated from them.

I owe my publishing career in Britain to Xianyi, thanks to his intervention in April 1976. I am grateful to him for that. But above all, I'm grateful for his friendship and loyalty over the years, his great good grace and fortitude; and we're all grateful to him and Gladys for the wonderful work they did together for almost 40 years at the Foreign Languages Press. We were so lucky to have known them as colleagues and as cherished friends.

Shortly after Xianyi's death, I received an email from a young Chinese editor who had been one of my trainees at the Press. He put it better than I could ever have done: 'We young Chinese publishers,' he said, 'are too young to have known him; you were lucky to have known him—because Yang Xianyi is a man of backbone.'

London, November 2010