At the margins of life
Updated: 2011-07-22 12:17
By Yang Guang (China Daily European Weekly)
Yang Jiang has concentrated on her work after the deaths of her daughter Qian Yuan and husband Qian Zhongshu. Provided to China Daily
The 100th birthday of Yang Jiang was a low-key affair for a celebrated writer and translator
Writer Yang Jiang spent her centennial birthday on July 17 with self-effacing modesty. "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."
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 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 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.
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 established 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 a group of intellectuals underwent during the early 1950s.
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 Wen Hui Bao newspaper 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 is 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 (982,000 euros) 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.
Domestic firms make hay as shopping spree by middle class consumers keeps cash registers ringing in Nanjing
Yao Ming announced his retirement from basketball, staging an emotional end to a glorious career.
British fitness coach comes to terms with tragedy through life changes
Traditional Chinese medicine using moxa, or mugwort herb, is once again becoming fashionable