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November 30, 2009

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Recalling the man who opened China's classics to the West

THE man who translated "A Dream of Red Mansions" into its classic English text (1974) is being mourned as a distinguished intellectual who made it his life's work to introduce great Chinese literature to the English-speaking world.

Yang Xianyi, 94, died last Monday in Beijing. A funeral was held yesterday at Beijing's Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

Starting around 1940, Oxford-educated Yang, together with his British wife Gladys Margaret Taylor, translated great works of Chinese literature, including the lyrical poem "Li Sao" by Qu Yuan from the 4th century BC, and works by Lu Xun, among many others.

Translations included "Records of a Historian" (a selection by historian Sima Qian, who died around AD 85), "The Courtesan's Jewel Box: Chinese Stories from the 10th-17th Centuries," and many others. Especially famous was the 1974 translation of the classic novel, "A Dream of Red Mansions" about the decline of a feudal family.

Yang worked to bring both works of Chinese literature to the West and works of Western literature to China. His aim was always to be true to the original but accessible to the reader.

His works were published mostly by Beijing's Foreign Language Press, becoming standard texts for scholars throughout China.

He also translated into Chinese Shaw's "Pygmalian," Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," Aristophanes' "The Birds," "The Song of Roland" and many other works.

Yang was born in 1915 into a wealthy banking family in Tianjin and was tutored at home in the Chinese classics.

In 1936 he entered Merton College, Oxford University and studied classics for two years before shifting to English literature.

He was so brilliant that he turned Milton into classical Chinese verse.

At Oxford he met Taylor, the daughter of missionaries in China.

His autobiography "White Tiger" (2002) tells of an early life abroad of carefree travel, adventure, indulgence and savoring European art and culture. It also tells of later suffering.

His academic work was so-so. Just for fun, 24-year-old Yang translated "Li Sao," or "The Lament" into the English form of heroic couplets in the style of John Dryden, stunning the academics. Today the book is a classic throughout Europe.

He and his wife returned to China in 1940 and spent the war years teaching in the interior, including Chongqing, where many intellectuals had fled the Japanese occupation.

Life was difficult and their left-wing sympathies sometimes got them into trouble. His family had lost its wealth.

In 1953, Yang together with a group of scientists and artists, met Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Mao shook Yang's hand and after Zhou told him about Yang's translation of "Li Sao," Mao asked skeptically: "Can it be translated?"

"Don't you think all literature can be translated?" Yang responded. Mao smiled a little disdainfully, Yang recalled, later writing that Mao did not believe such a great work in Chinese could ever be well rendered in another language.

Though Yang and his wife had worked for the pro-Communist underground, Yang was later accused of being a foreign spy and criticized during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) for omitting quotations from Mao in his translations.

He was forced to endure "struggle sessions" and clean the toilets in the Foreign Language Press where he worked.

"I made each toilet glitter," he later wrote. "The toilets I cleaned were the tidiest."

In 1968 he and his wife were separated and imprisoned for four years.

After they were released, they continued their mission of translations.

They traveled, practiced calligraphy and Chinese ink painting.

Yang stopped translating in 1999 when his wife Gladys died.

His retired life was spent in reading, smoking and drinking wine.

He always retained his humor.

"He loved drinking," recalls Lu Gusun, a leading lexicographer and a famous professor of English literature at Fudan University. "Each time I went to Beijing, I would take him several bottles of wine."


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