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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Sally Vernon

That (recording) is a tiny section of the recording I did with Xianyi in 1991 when he was staying at Merton, his old Oxford college. It was rescued from the mini tape I was using at that time. Unfortunately the quality has deteriorated so badly that most of it is inaudible now. But there it is, a little bit of his real voice as it was in English, and very moving just because it is a real piece of him. It adds some detail to the early part of his autobiography where he is talking about the kind of Chinese students who were studying in Europe with him at that time—in the 1930s.

I had known the Yangs for fifteen years or so and like all their friends I was very fond of them. He had agreed to write his memoirs after an Italian friend suggested the idea, and we were all astonished when he just knocked it out in English, from start to finish, working on his old manual typewriter—not like a computer nowadays—you had to thump it hard—and you had to get what you wanted to say right before the thump, not afterwards, because there was no means of correcting anything. For an old man who hated writing letters it was a physical achievement as well as an astonishing feat of memory. But when it was finished Gladys was not up to doing her usual polishing, so it was left in an uncorrected state. More importantly, if it was going to appeal to an English publisher, it needed more emotional depth, and more about his family. There were only the barest outlines of the story of him and Gladys—which is in fact extraordinarily romantic. Amid a tumult of events, joys and sufferings he remained silent about what he felt. It was cheeky, but I thought I might be able to fill in the colour. I was so wrong.

When I sent him the new version of the manuscript, it came back with every bit of the new material crossed out. He never wanted his book to be about those aspects of his life. So when we took it to publishers, they all said that in his book Xianyi sounded rather callous and insensitive—which was the more strange since he was such a modest and generous man. And they rejected it.

Meanwhile the Italian friend had the original version translated and got it published in Italian as Da Mandarino al Compagno. And eventually Xianyi's English version was published privately, exactly as he had typed it. I am still sad that there isn't more Gladys in it, and that he never told us how he felt about so many intensely disturbing things, but perhaps it was this emotional self-effacement—what do you call it? patrician? stoic?—that made it possible for him to survive the trials and dangers of his life in this troubled period of Chinese history.