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Cultural Revolution

Yang Jiang, bestselling author who wrote on the pain of living through persecution during Cultural Revolution, dies at 104

Yang’s works – including her Chinese translation of Spanish classic ‘Don Quixote’ – made her a household name alongside her late husband Qian Zhongshu

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 8:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 4:10pm

Yang Jiang, a renowned Chinese writer and widow of an equally acclaimed author, died in Beijing on Wednesday. She was 104.

Yang and her husband Qian Zhongshu (1910–1998) were seen as a model couple. Contradicting a Chinese saying that it is impossible for a woman to be both a chaste wife and gifted scholar or talented artist, Qian once described Yang as “the most chaste wife and talented girl” in China.

Yang, also known as Yang Ji­kang, died at Peking Union Medical College Hospital on Wednesday morning.

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A great writer, playwright, author, and translator, Yang wrote several successful comedies, and was the first Chinese academic to translate Don Quixote from Spanish to Chinese.

Her husband Qian was an acclaimed writer, editor, and poet, whose novel Fortress Besieged is considered a masterpiece of 20th-century literature.

Yang was born in Beijing to a wealthy and educated family from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, in 1911.

After graduating from Soochow University in 1932, Yang enrolled in the graduate school of Tsinghua University, where she met and married her husband in 1935.

The pair then studied at Oxford University, where their only daughter, Qian Yuan, was born in 1937. They continued their studies at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris until 1938, when the family of three set sail for war-torn China.

Yang became a household name for her novels, plays, essays and translated works that appeared before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

“There’s a way to go if we wanted to,” she wrote of their decision to stay in China in the memoir We Three in 2003.

“We have never been fond of singing or listening to patriotic tunes. But we don’t want to part with the country, humiliated and weak as it is, of our forefathers and families and become second-grade citizens of others.”

As Qian was assigned to translate the works of Mao Zedong, Yang worked as an academic at the Institute of Foreign Literature Study under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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But they were not exempted from political campaigns.

In 1958, they were sent to the outskirts of Beijing to perform labour at steel mills as part of the Great Leap Forward.

As school was halted, Yang, then 47, started learning Spanish from scratch and started translating such classics as Gil Blas and Don Quixote.

During Mao’s “Four Clean-ups Movement” in 1964 – launched to cleanse the party of “reactionary” electments – the entire institute left for the countryside except Yang, who was helping Qian finalise the translation of Mao’s essays and poems.

The project had helped keep the family well-fed during the bitter years in 1959-1961 when tens of millions of people starved to death.

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But the family wasn’t safe from political persecution for long.

In August 1966, shortly after the Cultural Revolution began, Yang and her husband were publicly denounced by the “revolutionary multitude”.

Their daughter, then a teacher at Beijing Normal University and a Communist Party member, put up a poster to draw a clear demarcation between her and her parents.

“After that she came home, without saying a word, and leaned towards me and started knitting a nightgown and put it on me … I could feel her tears ... and that pained us,” Yang wrote in We Three.

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In 1969, Qian Zhongshu was sent off to Henan province for re-education at the May 7 cadre school.

At the train station seeing him off was Yang, Qian Yuan and her husband Deyi.

A year later, when it was Yang’s turn to be sent away, it was just Qian Yuan seeing her off at the station. Deyi had taken his own life just a month earlier.

“Yuan went out of sight as the train departed. I closed my eyes to let my tears flow,” Yang wrote as she recounted the painful farewell.

Yang and her husband returned to Beijing in 1972 and lived with their daughter at Beijing Normal University.

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As the Cultural Revolution came to a close after Mao’s death, Yang completed her Chinese translation of Don Quixote in November 1976.

The epic work, spanning eight volumes, became the state gift to Spanish King Juan Carlos I during his official visit to China hosted by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

Eight years later, in 1986, the King awarded Yang the Medal of King Alfonso X, a top accolade for “the wise”.

In 1988, Yang published the novel Baptism, which depicts the life of intellectuals under ideological indoctrination and is often compared to Fortress Besieged.

“There is no absolute happiness in human life. Happiness always comes with worry and anxiety,” she wrote in We Three.

The memoir, a national bestseller in 2003, was Qian Yuan’s unfinished project.

Qian Yuan had began writing during her spine cancer treatment and completed only the first five chapters before she died in 1997, two months shy of 60.

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Yang withheld the news of their daughter’s death from her husband until his passing in 1998.

After her husband’s death, Yang compiled and edited his unpublished works, the most celebrated being We Three.

“This is a long dream of ten thousand miles. The scene was so real that it felt like a dream after waking up. But a dream being a dream, is nothing but a dream,” its opening line reads.

At the age of 96, Yang surprised the world with Reaching the Brink of Life, a philosophic work whose title alludes to her husband’s collection of essays Marginalia to Life.

After Yang’s death, her name quickly became the top search term on weibo, reflecting the fame and adoration she had long enjoyed.