Yang Jiang. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.The passing of the great Chinese writer, translator and intellectual Yang Jiang at the age of 104 on 26 May 2016 brings to an end one of the very last links with an era of Chinese history that predated the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Perhaps the only other figure of similar importance from this period is Zhou Youguang, whose claim to fame rests largely on the creation of the Pinyin national transliteration system for Mandarin Chinese (and who is still, remarkably, alive at the age of 110). By comparison, Yang's achievements are broader and deeper. Even in her marriage for almost seven decades to the great Qian Zhongshu, she occupies a place at the heart of modern Chinese intellectual history – and of its tragic developments and challenges – throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first.
Yang belonged to a generation of Chinese global intellectuals for whom optimism was real, searing, brief, and then buried by two calamities – the epic Sino-Japanese war, which she experienced from 1937 partly in China and partly while studying in Europe, and the series of campaigns visited on people of her class after the communists came to power in 1949. While the former had a deep, brutal and visceral impact and shaped the worldview of people of her age, the second was to craft out perhaps an even more profound, harrowing and unresolved set of issues. Yang and her husband were, after all, the archetypal "enemies within" as identitifed by Mao Zedong from the early 1950s, when he sponsored the early mass-mobilisation campaigns.
The couple fitted the bill perfectly. Both had studied abroad. Both were clearly intellectuals who wrote in a style which was sometimes erudite and dense in cultural references, and both had highly independent minds. They were doomed to attract Maoist attention at some point.
Cleansing, one of Yang’s later works, refers to the earliest of these Maoist campaigns, the "Three Antis". Yang wrote the novel in the 1980s (the Chinese title contains the characters for "wash" and "brain", which conveyed an obvious, critical message). Set in a social-science research centre, it deals with a tentative, unconsummated affair between one of its young female researchers and a married academic. The novel’s plot was laden in symbolism, suggesting the kind of uneasy truce between returnee academics and thinkers and the government that was now in charge of their country. Its ending was ambiguous, with the relationships in the novel unresolved.
A Cadre Life in Six Chapters is Yang’s best known work outside of China – but one which, in recent years, has been hard to find within the country. It is a piercingly brief memoir of her and her husband's life in one of the cadre training schools set up during the Cultural Revolution from 1966. The purpose of these schools was to take urban intellectuals from their supposed ivory-tower existence, sending them down to experience rural hardship and thus enabling them to "learn from the masses".
For a couple able to read at least a dozen languages between them, conveying the humiliation of this era lay almost beyond the limits of language. Yang refers in A Cadre Life, written after the Cultural Revolution had finally ended, to how her husband became so emaciated that only a dog was able to recognise him from his smell. A doctor sent to attend him after an illness laughed when told his name, noting that "it was the same as the great writer Qian Zhongshu", unable to reconcile the ill, dirty figure before him forced to serve other inmates in a canteen, and the author of some of the most erudite and powerful works written in contemporary Chinese.
After the Mao era, Yang settled into a semi-reclusive existence with her husband and her daughter (whose partner had also died in the early 1970s as a result of the campaigns at that time). My sole contact with her was a brief correspondence by fax in around 1996, when I asked her whether she could grant me permission to publish a translation of one of her works. Her response was gracious, conferring rights on me but simply asking me to send her a copy of the translation when it was done. It was a project I was interrupted in and never brought to completion.
From 1997, the death of her daughter and husband in quick succession deprived her of her two closest friends and companions. Her daughter was the focus of her moving We Three, an autobiographical account of their life together. Her husband had always written of her as the "perfect wife, friend and lover" – words which testified to their bond since the 1930s, when they had been students in Oxford and the Sorbonne. Yang herself wrote movingly of how her own life seemed devoid of meaning now that the people that mattered most to her were gone. But she survived for another two decades, frail towards the end, but maintaining her remarkable clarity and curiosity about the world, a figure of quiet, elegant authority and integrity in a China where so many had betrayed their ideals in the political campaigns of Maoism or after the onrush of free-fall capitalism under Deng Xiaoping.
As a literary stylist, and the person to produce the first translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote into English, Yang will maintain her place in Chinese cultural history. But the real meaning of her life perhaps was in her maintaining a faith in the power of culture and of a literary heritage which managed to survive the degrading attempts at annihilation of the spirit of the late Mao years. Yang and her husband never joined in denunciations of others, and did not play the political game. In the years ahead, as the mean-spirited, often hollow public figures that inspired the campaigns they suffered in are reduced to historic footnotes, it is likely that the names of Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu will grow in stature, and that their works will become increasingly important in understanding the era through which they lived.