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Why Yang Jiang is revered today

Author  :  Huang Wei, Chen Yuan, Tang Ping, Li Yan     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-06-07

Yang Jiang, born Yang Jikang in 1911 in Beijing, was a Chinese playwright, writer and translator. She grew up in Jiangsu Province, East China. After graduating from Soochow University in 1932, Yang Jiang enrolled in the graduate school of Tsinghua University where she met her husband Qian Zhongshu. From 1935 to 1938, they studied abroad in England and France. At that time, she gave birth to their daughter Qian Yuan. After 1949, she taught at Tsinghua University while conducting research on Western literature at Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Later, she became a research fellow of the Institute of Foreign Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Her most famous plays include As You Wish and Taking True for False. Her novel Baptism has won wide acclaim. In her 90s, she published her memoir We Three and the collection of essays Reaching the Brink of Life. She also translated the Spanish novel Don Quixote.

Since the centenarian playwright and scholar Yang Jiang passed away, people from all walks of life have expressed their condolences and paid tribute to her personal charisma as well as the legacy she left to the world.

Many scholars from the publishing sector declined to be interviewed for this piece. Unwilling to talk about his social contact with Yang, one said, “She hopes to leave the world in simplicity, in peace, without disturbing others.”

What is the most respectable and admirable aspect of Yang’s life and works?

“I strove with none for none was worth my strife”—this verse from the poem Life and Death by the British poet Walter Landor, which Yang translated, accurately captures her character. In an era fraught with hustle and bustle, Yang’s indifference to fame and her serene detachment touched us.

These days, people pursue celebrity and yearn to see their faces on headlines. Vanity permeates modern society, but Yang lived a reclusive life in her twilight years. She kept her door locked and declined requests for interviews. She chose to spend every birthday without celebration. On her 90th birthday, she moved to the hotel on Tsinghua University campus and lived there for a few days to escape from external disturbances. On her 100th birthday, she said to some of her intimate friends, “It is too hot today and just do not come for my birthday celebration which otherwise will trouble you.”

Translated works are among Yang’s most remarkable achievements. “She never used time in exchange for production,” wrote Ye Tingfang, a Chinese translator, in his article, “Most of the translators like us translate as many as 2,000 words or so a day, while Yang Jiang said she is only able to translate 500 words a day.” Yang once told Ye that she actually translated in a slow way, “To translate a paragraph in the passage, I would first figure out the meaning of the whole paragraph, and then unravel each sentence, and at last restructure the sentences in line with the characteristics of Chinese language.”

In addition to translation, Yang is also renowned for her achievements in drama and prose, which have always been important subjects for academic research. The novel Baptism published in 1988 is considered the acme of her literary achievement. The Chinese writer and translator Shi Zhecun once said that Baptism is like a combination of A Dream of Red Mansions and The Scholars, two of China’s most important classics. To this, Yang responded with characteristic modesty, saying that, “Baptism was just an experiment to test myself and see if I am capable of writing novels.” She called all her efforts as attempts. However, each of her attempts was a success. This is closely related with her conscientiousness in literary creation.

In the memory of Bai Ye, a notable Chinese writer and literary critic, Yang was especially conscientious about her works. In the 1990s, Bai was the commissioning editor for the Collection of Yang Jiang’s Works. Bai recalls how impressed he was with Yang’s diligence. From the first day they started working together to the date the book was printed, Yang remained earnest and serious in her own works, carefully revising them over and over, Bai said.

Later on, in the article “When I Edited Collection of Yang Jiang’s Works,” Bai wrote with emotion and affection: “From the publication of the book on, I became a frequent visitor to Yang Jiang’s home. Each time I went for a visit, Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang welcomed me with ardor and warmth. From each contact and interaction with them, I could feel many things that I could not feel somewhere else. That cozy and comfortable sitting room feels like my school and also my home.”

One memory left quite an impression on Bai. Sometime in 1990s when Bai visited Yang in her home, she sat on the chair across from him.

“While she was talking to me, she moved her chair nearer toward me inch by inch until she almost sat knee to knee with me. That was the way she chatted with you—she is really kind and affable,” Bai said. “To some extent, she is quite simple. She would directly speak out whom she likes and dislikes.”

“In the contemporary era, such great scholars are growing rarer by the day. The passing of Yang Jiang also takes away something valuable of the era she came from, an era of literary masters,” Bai said.

Editor: Yu Hui

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