Yang Xianyi: Translator who fell foul of authority during the Cultural Revolution

Yang Xianyi, who has died in Beijing aged 93, was a distinguished literary translator remarkable for the range of his work. He was also a principled and patriotic intellectual who managed to retain wit, integrity and a sense of fun, even in the most difficult days of the Maoist period.

In the West he is best known for translations of Chinese literature into English. With his wife, Gladys Yang (see the Independent obituary of 1 December 1999), he published English versions of a great range of Chinese literature from the past two millennia. Among the most memorable of these are Records of a Historian, a selection from the historian Sima Qian, who died around 85AD; The Courtesan's Jewel Box: Chinese Stories from the Xth to the XV11th Centuries, a collection of lively stories from the Ming Dynasty; and the great Qing dynasty novels, Dream of Red Mansions and The Scholars. Their Selected Works of Lu Xun made the greatest writer of China's early 20th-century literary renaissance available in English.

Yang Xianyi also worked to make western classics available to Chinese readers, producing translations of Homer's Iliad, Aristophanes' Birds and Le Chanson de Roland as well as plays by Synge and Shaw. The Yangs contributed directly and indirectly to the development of Chinese studies in the West as generations of China scholars benefited from their scholarship and their generous hospitality.

Yang was born to a wealthy banking family in the westernised port city of Tianjin. As his father died when he was five, two formidable women, his father's principal wife and a younger concubine who had given birth to him, brought him up. He addressed both as mother. As the only boy in the family, he was indulged and protected. He received a largely traditional education from private tutors until he was 12, when his birth mother finally managed to persuade the senior wife that he should be allowed to attend school. A missionary foundation, the Tianjin Anglo-Chinese College, was selected. On the advice of his teachers there, he went on to higher education at Oxford University, where he became engaged to Gladys Tayler, the university's first graduate in Chinese.

Yang returned to China with Gladys in 1940 and spent the war years teaching in the interior of China where many intellectuals had fled from the Japanese occupation. Life was not easy for them. Their left-wing sympathies sometimes got them into trouble; Yang's family had lost its money and academic salaries were low. After the war, they made the journey down the Yangzi to Nanjing on an overcrowded wooden junk. Their possessions were lost when the baggage junk sank but they arrived safely with their two young children.

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, Yang Xianyi was at first treated by the new government as an honoured intellectual. However, his many foreign contacts and his tendency to speak too frankly made him vulnerable in an increasingly conformist climate. By the mid-1950s he had been demoted. He and Gladys had had great hopes of the new communist regime and they continued generally to speak in its favour while sometimes voicing reservations. Like other cadres of the new state they worked an eight-hour day, six days a week, a fact that perhaps partly explains their extraordinary productivity.

As salaried workers for the Foreign Languages Press, the Yangs sometimes lacked control over what they translated. In addition to their translations of the classics and of many of the best-known modern Chinese writers, they also had to waste their talents on propaganda literature of little merit. In his spare time, Yang wrote many introductory articles about western literature for newspapers and journals that now needed cultural and educational material to meet new policies, penned satirical verse for his friends, and also produced his translations of western classics. They also continued with extraordinary courage to read, think and discuss freely, faithful to the liberal intellectual tradition they had both embraced.

The Cultural Revolution brought catastrophe. Criticised and ostracised by his colleagues, Yang Xianyi suffered a breakdown and began to hear voices. This, he was later to insist, had been his worst time. In 1968, he and Gladys were arrested and held without news of each other or the outside world for four years. Apparently, he felt less pressure in this period, resigning himself calmly to his fate and living from day to day. Later, he described episodes in his prison life such as the races he and his cell-mates organised between the bedbugs with which their sleeping platform was infested.

On their release, the Yangs took up the threads of their old lives again. Once again they were generous hosts to the many friends, Chinese and foreign, who ate, drank, and talked at their house every evening. Paid back-dated salary for their years in prison, they were able to acquire their first fridge and to help writers and artists who could not sell books or pictures in the still repressive cultural climate. In 1979, they were deeply grieved by the suicide of their son, who had become mentally ill during the Cultural Revolution, but they took pride and pleasure in the achievements of their daughters and grandchildren. They enjoyed the more lively and critical writing that began to emerge in China after the death of Mao and they helped and encouraged many young writers. As editor of the journal Chinese Literature, Yang published translations of the more lively and critical writing that began to emerge in China after the death of Mao. He also established an English language paperback series, Panda Books.

He was able to go abroad again for the first time since 1940 and the couple were invited to universities in Europe, Japan and India. They became hopeful once more about the future for China and in this spirit of optimism Yang applied for and was granted membership of the Communist Party in 1985.

In the spring of 1989, Yang voiced his support for the peaceful student demonstrations in interviews with foreign journalists. A few months later he was enraged and horrified by the Tiananmen massacre. Having denounced the suppression in telephone interviews with foreign broadcasting stations on 4 June, he went into hiding for a couple of weeks. Later that year, when things had settled down a little, he attempted to leave the Communist Party. He was amused to be told that resignation was not permitted but that he would be expelled. His refusal to recant won him great respect among younger intellectuals.

From the early 1990s, Gladys's health gradually deteriorated. Yang cared for her until her death in 1999. Yang Xianyi lived out his last years surrounded by loving family in his daughter's house. His enormous gift for friendship survived and when he could talk of things that interested in him his vitality revived. But he missed Gladys. His fine poem of farewell to her, written in classical Chinese, "I thought that you and I would fly away together but you have gone before..." expressed his own readiness to die. He is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.

Delia Davin

Yang Xianyi, literary translator and writer; born Beijing 10 January 1915; married Gladys Tayler (died 1999; one son deceased, two daughters); died Beijing 23 November 2009.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Consultant – Building Management

up to £45,000 + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Green ...

Senior Industrial Energy Consultant

Up to £45,000 + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Green ...

Mechanical Building Services Energy Engineer

up to £45K basic + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Gr...

Building Services Energy Engineer

up to £45K basic + benefits: The Green Recruitment Company: Our Client The Gr...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal