The death of Yang Jiang marks the end of an era in Chinese literature
Renowned scholar and her husband influenced generations with their works, which entertained and enlightened a nation
The death at the age of 104 of the great literary scholar Yang Jiang, widow of the equally brilliant Qian Zhongshu, marks the end of an era in modern Chinese literature. Her passing was announced by the state-run media, an indication of the prestige she was accorded in contemporary China. For foreigners, it may be difficult to appreciate the importance of this literary celebrity couple. For many Chinese, the pair were exemplary intellectuals in the Chinese tradition, an embodiment of public virtue, personal integrity and extreme erudition.
An offbeat sense of humour and understatement permeate most of their writings, in such works of hers as Baptism, We Three and Six Chapters from My Life ‘Downunder’. This is despite their dark subjects concerningthe suffering and persecution that intellectuals had to endure. Their literary and personal struggles have inspired three generations of Chinese readers.
Yang, a playwright, memoirist and translator, was not only well-versed in the Chinese canon, but fluent in several languages. She translated Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a formidable undertaking for which she taught herself Spanish. It is widely regarded as the definitive Chinese version.
The couple met when both were students at Tsinghua University. They married in 1935 and moved to Britain where Qian studied at Oxford University. After their daughter was born, they went to study in Paris before moving back to China in 1938, a year after the Japanese invasion. Their time overseas exposed them to European culture and literature.
During the tumultuous 1940s, Yang unexpectedly found success as a playwright of comedies. Qian also published Fortress Besieged, a satirical novel about Chinese marriages that has become an influential landmark of modern Chinese literature.
During the Cultural Revolution, the couple and their daughter suffered greatly. The experience inspired her later books, which became bestsellers and touched the heart of a nation. In death as in life, Yang again compels the Chinese people to confront their dark past.