“The most chaste wife and most talented girl in China” died last week on Wednesday, May 25th, at the age of 104. Yang Jiang, the celebrated Chinese author, playwright and translator – described above by her husband, the equally famous author of 'Fortress Besieged' – produced some of the most influential texts in Chinese literary history. She was so successful that she earned the (somewhat sexist) epithet of supreme respect, “Mister”. Mister Yang Jiang – the most chaste wife, the most talented girl.
Yang was the first to translate Don Quixote into Chinese. She learned Spanish specifically for the task as, in her view, the French and English translations were deficient.
It was at this time, in 1966, that Mao Zedong inaugurated the Cultural Revolution and the Red Army confiscated Yang's manuscript when she'd already translated seven of the eight volumes. She was sent, like other artists and intellectuals, at almost 60 years old, to the countryside in Henan to be “reformed through labour” for a number of years.
Yang Jiang in 2012, still writing. Her last book was published when she was 103.
Being torn away from her quiet, academic life – a life lived reading and writing at desks – and thrown, at her age, into a world of backbreaking physical labour alongside active young men in their 20s and 30s must have been a shock to the system for Yang. She must've ached and bruised and suffered – but grown and strengthened too. As she later wrote, “in order to toughen someone up, to make someone achieve great things, they must first of all be made to suffer. Only in this way can tenacity and perseverance be cultivated.”
As the Cultural Revolution faded, Yang and her husband moved back to Beijing to resume, as close as they could, the life they had been living before the disruption. How often, though, in the fields of Henan, must Yang have thought, with pain and regret, of her lost Don Quixote manuscript? It must have been a pain that equalled, mentally, the physical pain of the Sisyphean toil in the fields. But the almost complete manuscript was found, years after confiscation, in a cupboard full of scrap paper and returned to her. It was published in 1978 and remains, today, the definitive Chinese translation of Don Quixote.
Yang then brought her prodigious literary powers to work on her own experience – in Henan. Her memoir, 'Six Chapters from My Life 'Downunder'', covers, in emotionally restrained prose, her years of “re-education” in rural China. “Avoiding the melodramatic tone of many other memoirs of the turbulent Cultural Revolution,” writes Amy Qin in The New York Times, “[Yang] relied on understated, sometimes wry prose to recount everyday life at the “cadre school” for purged officials and scholars: digging a well, tending to her vegetable plot, befriending a puppy. Her tone turned stoic, however, in recalling the suicide of her son-in-law, who had been subjected to constant criticism from his peers for showing reactionary tendencies.”
'We Three' is Yang Jiang's memoir about her life with her husband and daughter
“Six Chapters” was published in 1981 and brought fame to Ms. Yang, then 70 years old. Her 2003 memoir 'We Three', about her family life with her husband and daughter, who both died before her, was a bestseller. Her last novel was published last year, when she was 103.
But fame – and fortune – were not things that she aspired to. “For Yang Jiang everything was a trial”, wrote the People's Daily after her death, “these trials showed her calm and simple state of mind, her lack of desire for fame or wealth.”
Nevertheless, Yang is a superstar in China. On the day she died her name was the highest trending topic on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media site that has over 600 million users. And many of them, oddly, referred to Ms. Yang as “Xiansheng”, which means “Mister.” The Mandarin word was originally used to refer to one's seniors: teachers, principals, scholars, professors or doctors. However, since the Republic of China era, “Xiansheng” has also been used to address highly respectable and knowledgeable women. It was used to "elevate" women to the status of a man. A woman who is a “Mister” should have “a noble character and be a specialist in some field.”
Yang certainly fits this description – but why stop there? She surely isn't only a “Mister”, but must be, really, the “Daddy” of Chinese letters.