At the margins of life

Updated: 2011-07-22 08:02

By Yang Guang (China Daily)

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 At the margins of life

Author Yang Jiang has experienced the entire sweep of the country's turbulent 20th-century history and now lives in self-chosen seclusion. Photos provided to China Daily

The 100th birthday of Yang Jiang was a low-key affair for the celebrated writer and translator. Yang Guang reports.

Writer Yang Jiang spent her centennial birthday on July 17 with self-effacing mo-desty.

"No ceremony was held," says Lu Jiande, director of the Institute of Foreign Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), where Yang retired, because Yang "has been extremely low key".

Yu Yurong, a literature PhD candidate at CASS, visited Yang at her spartan apartment in Beijing's Xicheng district in early July.

"Although a centenarian, she speaks with a clear mind and humor," Yu says. "Her facial expressions are vivid and her gait nimble."

At the margins of life

Living in self-chosen seclusion and adverse to publicity, Yang represents a vanishing generation of intellectuals who have experienced the entire sweep of the country's turbulent 20th-century history.

Her fame is attributed in part to her late husband, the writer and scholar Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998) who was best known for his novel Fortress Besieged, but she has earned a literary and intellectual reputation in her own right. Her talent is manifested in her stage plays, fiction, essays and translations.

She was the first to have translated Don Quixote directly from Spanish into Chinese and her books have sold in the millions.

She is said to have fallen in love with Qian at first sight and their marriage, an emotional and intellectual bond based on mutual devotion, lasted 63 years.

Qian wrote in the dedication to his 1946 short story collection Humans, Beasts and Ghosts that Yang was "an almost impossible combination of three incompatible things: wife, mistress, and friend".

Yang studied Western literature, together with Qian, at Oxford and the Sorbonne, from 1935 to 1938, during which time she gave birth to their only daughter Qian Yuan (1937-1997). They returned to teach at universities in Shanghai and Beijing, before settling down as researchers at CASS after the founding of New China in 1949.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Yang and Qian did manual labor in rural Henan province. Six Chapters from My Life "Downunder" is the account of the couple's two years in nearby but separated re-education schools.

The book was published in 1981 and has been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Amid the social turmoil, Yang details in a peaceful manner, the chores of her daily life, such as digging a well, guarding a vegetable field and trying to find a way to visit her husband.

"She is a dignified soul, without the slightest hint of complaint or protest," pianist Fou Ts'ong commented after reading her memoir. Fou's father, Fou Lei (1908-1966), an eminent translator and art critic, was the couple's close friend.

Her novel Baptism, published in 1988 and translated into English in 2007, is about the harrowing ordeals of a group of intellectuals during the early 1950s.

Writer Shi Zhecun (1905-2003) described the novel as a combination of two Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) classics - Cao Xueqin's A Dream of the Red Mansions and Wu Jingzi's The Scholars.

Shi said the characters in Baptism and The Scholars are both Confucian intellectuals, while Baptism resembles A Dream of the Red Mansions in its portrayal of characters through dialogue.

After the deaths of her daughter and husband in 1997 and 1998, Yang devoted herself to collating manuscripts left by Qian and translating Plato's Phaedo.

"I have concentrated on my work to forget myself and escape from my grief," she told Shanghai-based newspaper Wen Hui Bao in a recent written interview.

"Socrates' faith in the immortal soul and his pursuit of truth, beauty, goodness and fairness have given me the courage to live on solitarily."

She records with tender poignancy the experience of losing her two closest family members in her 2003 best-selling memoir We Three.

Her philosophical reflections on life, death and the afterlife are crystallized in the 2007 essay collection Arriving at the Margins of Life: Answering My Own Questions, its title echoing Qian's 1941 Written in the Margins of Life.

Since 2001, Yang has given away the royalties from her and Qian's works to endow a scholarship at her alma mater, Tsinghua University.

The scholarship is reported to have amounted to more than 9 million yuan ($1.4 million) by May 2011.

Li Xin, Yang's publisher and chief-editor of Sanlian Publishing House, says Yang will produce a sequel to Baptism if energy permits and a collection of her research notes on A Dream of the Red Mansions might also be forthcoming.

 At the margins of life

Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu at their Beijing apartment in the 1980s. Their 63-year-long marriage was based on mutual devotion.

(China Daily 07/22/2011 page19)