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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Yang Xianyi and the Foreign Languages Press, China's official publishing house

Beth McKillop

After their student years and the pre-1949 period teaching in the south, Xianyi and Gladys began their life-long association with the Foreign Languages Press in 1952. Here they produced the body of work which built their reputation as the country's pre-eminent husband-and-wife translator team. Xianyi's extraordinary career as translator and editor unfolded against the story of new China.

In White Tiger, Xianyi described the circumstances that led to the couple's choice of Foreign Languages Press as their workplace. In 1952, the family was living in Nanjing and Xianyi had already declined an invitation to work in Beijing as a translator. With Gladys, Xianyi went to Beijing in 1952 on an assignment to work for the Asian and Pacific region peace conference and while there decided to accept an invitation to join the Foreign Languages Press. Xianyi would be the expert to decide the books to be translated and published, and could himself choose some titles to translate with the help of Gladys and other younger editors and translators. The Foreign Languages Press put the family in a small house in the city centre, until 1954 when the new building for the Press was built. They then moved to the western suburbs, to a district called Baiwanzhuang, near the zoo, and lived there for nearly 40 years. Xianyi recalled that 'Beijing after liberation made a very good impression on us . . . the old city had been cleaned up and still retained most of its former beauty, with quiet lanes . . . the old city walls had not yet been destroyed . . . As for all the translations of classical and modern Chinese literary works we did during that period and subsequently, it would take too long to mention them here. Suffice it to say that since 1953 Gladys and I became fairly well known as translators of Chinese literary writings . . . ' Beside Chinese to English translations Xianyi also did some translations of foreign literature into Chinese – among them Virgil's Eclogues, Aristophenes' The Birds and Peace, Plautus' Mosterellaria, and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and Caesar and Cleopatra. He also wrote a historical novel called the Red Eyebrows about a peasant revolt during the Former Han Dynasty.

In these years, Xianyi was also involved with a magazine published in English called Chinese Literature. This magazine first appeared in October 1950. In 1956, Chinese Literature was incorporated into the Foreign Languages Press when the government decided to have all foreign language publications put under one organization. The Yangs then joined the office of Chinese Literature as a separate department, while continuing to translate books for the English section of the Press. Despite all the political movements, the 1950s were the most prolific period in translating material from Chinese into English. Gladys and Xianyi translated works of literature such as Peony Pavilion, opera including The White Snake, Tang and Song poetical works by Li Bo, Du Fu, Wang Wei and others, Lu Xun's Brief History of Chinese Fiction (done in ten days during the Great Leap Forward), and selections from the writings of the great historian Sima Qian. Without a shadow of doubt, generations of Western students of Chinese literature, history and culture relied on the translations of Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang for their introduction to the Chinese world. Xianyi acknowledged many times that 'all these translations and many more were done with the help of my wife Gladys. Without her I could not have rendered them into good English. Gladys in fact worked more diligently than myself and translated many volumes of modern and contemporary Chinese literature by herself, especially modern Chinese novels and short stories.'

In 1960, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invited Xianyi to translate Homer's epics and he spent a year producing a translation of the Odyssey. The next project was to translate Hongloumeng [published under the title of Dream of Red Mansions—Ed.] for the Press, and a rough draft of about one hundred chapters was produced by 1964. The work was then stopped, only resuming in 1972, after Xianyi's release from jail, with the whole translation finished in 1974. Another work translated by Xianyi at this time was the Chanson de Roland which he had enjoyed studying at Oxford.

As an intellectual serving the people in new China, Xianyi was expected to follow political movements. He writes that during the 1950s, he took part in some voluntary physical labour. 'Every year during the early summer wheat harvest, all government workers had to spend from one to three days in the countryside to help the harvest. I rather enjoyed this break from deskwork, although a waste of time. In 1958, I joined other government workers at the Ming Tombs reservoir for about ten days; we worked very hard digging and transporting sand with wheelbarrows. There was quite a bit of enthusiasm for the work, but we got so exhausted by evening that we could hardly raise our rice bowls to eat . . . All this activity was for our re-education.'

When I met Gladys and Xianyi during my time as a student in Beijing in 1975, their working rhythm of office work, translating and meetings had been re-established, and the couple's gregarious natures and friendly conviviality were restored after their years of imprisonment. Their nobility of spirit, good humour, and charm impressed all who met them. My husband Andy later came out to Beijing to work at the Press, thanks to the Yang's kind help and interest in us. Now Andy, whose life was changed completely by the Yangs, will speak about life at the Foreign Languages Press at that time.