Yang Jiang (杨绛; Wade–Giles: Yang Chiang; 17 July 1911 – 25 May 2016) was a Chinese playwright, author, and translator. She wrote several successful comedies, and was the first Chinese person to produce a complete Chinese version of Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.

She was born in Beijing as Yang Jikang, and grew up in the Jiangnan region. After graduating from Soochow University in 1932, Yang Jiang enrolled in the graduate school of Tsinghua University. There she met Qian Zhongshu. They married in 1935. During 1935–1938, they went abroad to England for further study at Oxford University. In England, Yang gave birth to their daughter Qian Yuan (錢瑗) in 1937. They later studied at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, France. They often spoke French and English to each other throughout their lives in China.

They returned to China in 1938. Living in Shanghai, she wrote four stage plays: two comedies of manners, Heart’s Desire (1943) and Forging the Truth (1944), one farce, Sporting with the World (1947), and the tragedy Windswept Blossoms (1947). After 1949, she taught at the Tsinghua University and made a scholarly study of western literature at Peking University and the Academy of Science. She published this work in 1979 in a compendium: Spring Mud. As authors, literary researchers, and translators, Yang and Qian both made important contributions to the development of Chinese literary culture.

Yang also translated into Chinese three major European works of picaresque fiction: Lazarillo de Tormes (1951), Gil Blas (1956) and Don Quixote (1978). Her Chinese translation of Don Quixote is, as of 2016, still considered the definitive version. After deeming several English and French translations unsuitable, she taught herself Spanish. “If I wanted to be faithful to the original, I had to translate directly from the original,” she wrote in 2002. Ms. Yang had completed almost seven out of eight volumes of the translation when Red Guard student militants confiscated the manuscript from her home in Beijing. “I worked with every ounce of energy I could muster, gouging at the earth with a spade, but the only result was a solitary scratch on the surface,” Ms. Yang wrote. “The youngsters around me had quite a laugh over that.” As the Cultural Revolution subsided, Ms. Yang returned to Beijing to work on “Don Quixote.” The nearly completed draft that had been confiscated by Red Guards is said to have been discovered in a pile of scrap paper and returned to Ms. Yang. Published in 1978, it remains widely regarded as the definitive translation of “Don Quixote” in China.

She was also awarded the Civil Order of Alfonso X, the Wise for this by King Juan Carlos in October 1986. Her sister Yang Bi (楊必) (1922–1968) was also a translator.

Her experience doing “reform through labor” in a “cadre school” in Henan from 1969 to 1972, where she was “sent down” with her husband during the Cultural Revolution, inspired her to write Six Chapters from My Life ‘Downunder’ (1981). This is the book that made her name as a writer in the post-Mao period. In connection with this memoir, she also wrote Soon to Have Tea (將飲茶) (aka Toward Oblivion), which was published in 1983.

In 1988, she published her only novel Baptism (洗澡), which was always connected with Fortress Besieged (圍城), a masterpiece of her husband. Her 2003 memoir We Three (我們仨), recalled memories of her husband and her daughter Qian Yuan, who died of cancer one year before her father’s death in 1998. At the age of 96, she published Reaching the Brink of Life (走到人生邊上), a philosophic work whose title in Chinese clearly alludes to her late husband’s collection of essays Marginalia to Life (寫在人生邊上).

She turned 100 in July 2011. The novella After the Baptism (洗澡之後), a coda to Baptism, appeared in 2014. On 25 May 2016, Yang died at the age of 104 at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing.

Contradicting a Chinese saying that it is impossible for a woman to be both a chaste wife and gifted scholar or talented artist, Qian once described Yang as “the most chaste wife and talented girl” in China.

Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang in 1936

Edited by staff


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