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


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Patricia Wilson Mirrlees

It was a great privilege to have known Gladys and Xianyi. They enriched and influenced many lives including mine.

It was through Aelfryth and John Gittings that I first met Gladys Yang on 15 June, 1974, at their home in London. This encounter with Gladys during only her second visit to Britain since 1940 was to change my life. I mentioned to Gladys that I wanted to work in China. Before we said goodbye, she gave me her address and telephone number and said that if I ever went to Beijing, I should get in touch.

The opportunity to see Gladys again came on my first visit to China in March/April 1976. I immediately contacted her, and she invited me to dinner at her home in the Foreign Languages Press where I spent an exhilarating evening with her and Xianyi, whom I found learned and urbane. I was very fortunate to have that chance to spend a few hours talking about what was happening in Beijing, because the end of March and early April 1976 was a turbulent and tense period politically. Qing Ming was approaching. People in Beijing were placing white flowers and poems attacking the Gang of Four in Tiananmen Square, which led to the fighting in the Square on the 4 April.

I spent parts of days with Gladys and Xianyi, who arranged for me to meet a few of the foreign experts and students. Although I had not studied Chinese at university, Gladys and Xianyi suggested I work at the magazine Chinese Literature with them to help improve the English translations. They gave me a short article to edit or, to use the Chinese term, 'polish'. Later Gladys wrote to formally invite me to work at Chinese Literature.

When I flew to Beijing in early 1977, I signed a contract to work for one year at Chinese Literature as a 'polisher'. At the end of the year, I renewed my contract for a second year, then a third year until I ended up working ten and a-half years in Beijing, and eight of those years were spent at Chinese Literature. The China I lived and loved and still love is based on my friendship with Gladys and Xianyi, my colleagues in Chinese Literature and the friends I made at that time.

A week after my arrival, Xianyi gave me my Chinese name. Declaring that a Chinese name from my surname Wilson was too ugly, he decided on one taken from my given name Patricia. At first he thought of three words—Bai Cuixia—to follow the three syllables, but said that sounded as if I were a rural girl. He then settled on Bai Xia, a name which he and my Chinese friends found pleasing.

The English-language translators of Chinese Literature occupied three rooms in the Foreign Languages Press. Gladys's office overlooked the courtyard. Xianyi's was opposite hers and faced the street Bai Wan Zhuang. I was in the room next to Gladys also looking out on to the courtyard. There were several colleagues in each office. Gladys was completely professional in her approach to her work. The atmosphere in her room was quiet and studious. Xianyi's office was more lively, and I was always welcome there for a chat. Mine was the liveliest of all, because I was not so disciplined and was easily distracted if an article or story was boring and would find an excuse to talk to my comrades who did not seem to mind.

Office hours were from 8am until 12 noon and then from 1.30 to 5.30pm. We also worked on Saturday mornings, while the Chinese colleagues worked Saturday afternoons as well. At the morning or afternoon break times, I often crossed the courtyard to Gladys and Xianyi's ground- floor apartment. In winter I would warm my hands over the stove and have a glass of tea; in summer it was a pleasure to have a cool drink from the fridge.

The issues of Chinese Literature that we worked on in the months after the Cultural Revolution carried very little that was of literary merit. Mostly it was soft propaganda, as compared to the hard sell of Beijing Review. The editors, none of whom knew English, chose the articles and stories to be translated. Completed translations were handed to Gladys and me to polish. Gladys could read the Chinese text and make comparisons, but I had to work closely with a translator asking questions and checking points. Gladys and Xianyi had completed their great translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber, and Gladys was very busy translating works by new writers, especially women.

Along with my Chinese translator colleagues, I found most of the contents dire, so I cannot begin to imagine how Gladys and Xianyi must have felt wasting their time, scholarship and talent on such work. I would complain to Xianyi about a story or article and he would smile and sympathise and gently calm me down. Only the grammar and language could be improved but not the structure of an article. Chairman Mao's quotations appeared regularly and were printed in bold. Stories about Chairman Hua also cropped up. Another problem was that Chinese writers were paid by the character, which naturally encouraged them to write too much and repeat themselves.

However, changes for the better came quickly. By 1979, we were editing by cutting or re-writing. We even wrote articles ourselves and published them in the magazine. Xianyi became the Editor in Chief of the magazine and started the Panda Books paperback series. This was a success, and one that gave him much satisfaction. By the time I left the magazine in 1984, Chinese Literature was of a better quality, and most of the stories and articles were interesting. Some were even controversial.

When I started to work at Chinese Literature, Gladys and Xianyi had been back in China for almost 40 years. They had experienced three wars and, after 1949, many political campaigns and imprisonment, Gladys in solitary confinement and Xianyi in cells with up to 20 other inmates. Gladys had a very difficult time alone, but Xianyi, being of a gregarious nature, made the most of the fellowship of his cellmates.

The Foreign Languages Press in 1977 was recovering from the factional struggles that had taken place during the Cultural Revolution and resulted in a number of deaths. But with the opening of China and the drive to modernise, people became hopeful and spoke of their second liberation. During the decade I worked in China, life improved for most people and especially for intellectuals as expert replaced red. The mood was optimistic and relaxed. This was reflected in our social life.

Gladys and Xianyi were a very generous and warm couple. Almost every week in my first years I spent at least one evening or part of the weekend with them. They were welcoming and kind, introducing me to their friends from cultural circles – writers, artists, poets, literary critics. Many had been condemned and persecuted during the decade of the Cultural Revolution or even earlier during the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The bohemian, creative, diverse and bold people they knew were nothing like the stereotypes portrayed in film and on stage during the Cultural Revolution.

The hours would pass in laughter and a spirited discussion of some cultural issue, the latest political rumour or some bit of gossip. Xianyi was mild in manner and unfailingly courteous, cordial, easy-going and philosophical. He was also a raconteur, witty and mischievious, grand company. It was a revelation and an education to listen to what was being discussed. Time spent with the Yangs was time well spent. Sometimes, after a lot of talk and plenty to drink, a guest would start singing an aria from a Peking Opera. Xianyi would join in. As the hours passed, Gladys would grow quieter but Xianyi would become more ebullient.

Gladys and Xianyi had a happy family life with their daughters Yang Ying, Yang Zhi, their husbands and children. But they worried about their son Yang Ye, who having become mentally ill during the Cultural Revolution had gone to live in England. In 1978 they asked me to try and see him when I went home for a short visit. I could not tell Michael, as he then called himself, that I was working in Beijing with his parents or he would not have agreed to meet me. We did meet, and I reported all that had occurred when I returned to Beijing. They listened eagerly to every detail but I was unable to give them a photograph of him as he had refused to let me take one. When he died a few months later, both were devastated. Yet the day after they learned the news, they came to the office and began to work.

Gladys and Xianyi were the best ambassadors for China because they understood the West having lived and studied there, and their patriotism was matched by an independence of mind that gave them an integrity that stood out. This was in contrast to those who, even when something was blatantly awful or wrong, tried to make excuses for it.

Xianyi had great moral strength and courage. Prevented by his conscience from keeping silent, Xianyi spoke to the world through the foreign journalists and broadcast stations that contacted him at the time of Tian An Men in 1989. He gave voice to what many thought but did not say openly. Xianyi spoke out at great personal risk at a dangerous time when hundreds had been killed, or were being hunted down and imprisoned. This from a man in his seventies who had been targeted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

After I left Beijing in 1987, I returned as often as possible. Gladys died in November 1999, and the following January I spent a week at Xianyi's flat which he shared with his grandson Mingming. At precisely 4 pm each day he would have his first drink. During those days he talked mainly about Gladys whom he had cared for during her years of poor health. It was a difficult time for him. He did not like living in the Youyi Bin Guan compound with its guards at the gates and the security camera trained on his apartment. He felt apart from his friends. When he moved to live in a courtyard house with his daughter Yang Zhi, her husband David and grandson Ian, he was much happier among the hutongs of Houhai.

Through my work, I was able to visit Beijing several times a year. I eagerly looked forward to seeing Xianyi and my friends. With age, Xianyi could no longer walk, but he enjoyed company, talking and laughing. Each time I was leaving I would say that I would be back soon to see him, and he would always respond that he would probably be dead. As he reiterated this for several years, I began to feel reassured that while he was not immortal, he was going to be around for a long time.

When he became ill with cancer, I visited him in hospital and after that at home when he had responded well to treatment. The last time I saw him in November 2008, he was in very good spirits. I had planned several visits to China in 2009, but my health became problematic and I was unable to travel.

My much loved, wise old friend and mentor died a year ago. His legacy of translations with Gladys remains, as well as cherished memories of a remarkable man.

Xianyi's autobiography White Tiger captures better than anything what he was like. But there is a poem by Tao Qian [Tao Yuanming] that also reminds me of him. Here are a few lines from it:

Decline and growth have no fixed time,
Everyone gets his share of both:
Cold weather alternates with hot
And so it is with human lives—
Intelligent men understand
And are beset no more with doubts.
When chance brings them a jug of wine
They take it gladly as night comes on.

Hong Kong, November 2010