The Baiwan Zhuang Speakeasy
When Geremie Barmé first took me to visit Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang at their home in the Foreign Languages Press in Baiwan Zhuang 百万庄 in 1981, it felt like I'd been given the keys to an enchanted land. At the time, it was not legal for most Chinese to speak with foreigners, the message reinforced by cautionary arrests and harassment. It was still possible for a foreigner to make friends, but conversations could be guarded, fraught and, with the Cultural Revolution still fresh in people's psyches, harrowing. Yet here, at the Yangs, conversation and laughter flowed as freely as the whiskey Yang Xianyi poured in tumblers for himself and his guests.
It wasn't as if the Yangs hadn't known tragedy: their four-year-long stints in prison under trumped up political charges; the torture and death of so many friends and colleagues in the Cultural Revolution; and the suicide of their son were recent memories. But while you could detect flashes of sadness in their eyes, Xianyi and Gladys didn't often dwell publically on such matters; if Xianyi spoke of prison, it tended to be in the form of amusing anecdotes. Delivered in his characteristic drawl, they might be about being arrested in his slippers and having to wear them for the next four years, or about talented and interesting cellmates such as Zhang Langlang 张郎郎, the son of Zhang Ding 张仃 the man who designed the national emblem of the People's Republic of China, imprisoned partly for making a politically inapt joke.
Fig.1 The Forbidden City, Beijing, with Jing Shan in the background. (Photograph: GRB)
Gladys, in the style of Chinese women at the time, tended to wear white cotton blouses over dark trousers, but with the individual touch of bright headbands raking back her white hair. Xianyi was partial to Zhongshan zhuang 中山装 and cloth 'old man' shoes. At some point he acquired a Daoist priest's robe. It didn't take much urging to get him to put it on and parade about.
All the excitement of an era could be found in the Yangs' large, neat if down-at-heel apartment crammed with books, art, alcohol, knickknacks, friends and followers. The core group of Gladys and Xianyi's friends had known one another since before the revolution of 1949, and I first learnt from Geremie that they had been members of an artistic and literary coterie known as The Layabouts Lodge (Erliu tang 二流堂). The Yangs' inner circle included the cartoonist Ding Cong 丁聪 and his wife Shen Jun 沈峻, the calligrapher Huang Miaozi 黄苗子 and his wife the artist Yu Feng 郁风, the Peking Opera librettist Wu Zuguang 吴祖光 and his wife, the opera singer Xin Fengxia 新凤霞, the Joint Publishing editor and founder of Reading (Dushu 读书) Fan Yong 范用, and the stellar literary and scholarly couple Qian Zhongshu 钱钟书 and Yang Jiang 杨绛, living national treasures every one. There were also the many famous contemporary authors whom the Yangs had translated, as well as scholars, editors, young intellectuals, old 'foreign experts' (waiguo zhuanjia 外国专家, a title shared by Gladys), China correspondents and others. The conversation, flipping back and forth between Chinese and English, ranged freely and wittily from the editorials in the People's Daily to the latest satirical doggerel circulating on the street, novels and films and the odd scrap of deliciously scandalous gossip. As a young journalist and Sinologue with a keen interest in contemporary culture, I was dazzled.
The husband of one of their author friends, Shen Rong 谌容 was an editor of the People's Daily. I wondered at the mixed sense of trepidation and liberation with which he must have viewed his occasional forays into that speakeasy that was Xianyi and Gladys's nightly salon.
While I was still living in Hong Kong and travelling to Beijing about once a month, I always bought one bottle of good vodka for Gladys and one of scotch for Xianyi at the duty free shop. They were never going to give up their alcohol, and so there was a general consensus among their foreign visitors that they should at least have the best available. Purchases went into a large dedicated cupboard.
Sometimes I stayed with the Yangs. Their Anhui ayi made hearty and delicious but not extravagant meals. Xianyi liked millet porridge (xiaomi zhou 小米粥) and fatty Dongpo rou 东坡肉. Watching him devour the thick melting layers of pork fat in the latter dish, Gladys would grumble: never mind the chain smoking and drinking—the fatty pork, it seemed to her, would be the thing that would carry him off before his time. He listened, chuckled and ate some more, urging it on me as well, and Gladys would shake her head and in that fond, gruff, lovely voice, call him a chou laotou 臭老头: a stinking old man.
The Yangs' door was always open. You never knew whom you might meet there. One evening, an elderly couple from Shandong Province arrived, factory workers with thick provincial accents, faded clean cotton clothing and shuffling walks. I did a double-take when the man began speaking in English to Gladys—English that sounded old-fashioned and somewhat rusty but was American-accented and native. Studying his face, I realised for the first time that he was Caucasian. It turned out that this gentle provincial Shandong man had been an American soldier in the Korean War. Captured as a POW, he had decided to remain with his captors, who set him up Shandong with a wife and a job.
Whoever came knocking, Xianyi was ever the gracious host, urging drink and cigarettes on his guests with an unwearying expression of wry amusement, he kept the conversation going past the time when Gladys went to bed and some, like myself, had become too drowsy with scotch to do more than listen but too mesmerised to say goodnight.
In the northern spring of 1986, the director Xie Jin 谢晋 was shooting the film Hibiscus Town (Furong Zhen 芙蓉镇). It starred the reigning queen of Chinese cinema, Liu Xiaoqing 刘晓庆 and a then-unknown young actor called Jiang Wen 姜文. The film was based on the eponymous novel by the Hunan author Gu Hua 古华, which had been translated into English for the Foreign Language Press by Gladys. The Yangs, Geremie and myself, and a French translator called Philippe Grangereau boarded a train for Hunan. We'd meet Gu Hua and continue on to west Hunan (Xiangxi 湘西) by van, something of an epic journey in those days. It was made even more epic in our case by a serious of misadventures and minor calamities that might have tested the tempers of some. But in Xianyi's good-humoured presence, our Fawlty-Towers-On-The-Road trip remained high entertainment.
First up, the toilet in the soft-sleeper carriage somehow overflowed into the Yangs' compartment. Despite ubiquitous posted reminders to 'Serve the People' China did not then have what is known as a 'service industry'. It took some tenacity on the part of Geremie and my self to get them shifted to more salubrious quarters. Next, the compartment's loudspeaker, which in those days broadcast an almost non-stop spew of propaganda, moral exhortations and ideologically uplifting music, appeared to be stuck on its loudest volume; Geremie, using makeshift tools, managed to disassemble it to general cheers. Somewhere just inside Hunan Province, the train stopped for reasons unknown and in the middle of nowhere. As the temperature outside climbed, the train's attendants, having locked all us passengers inside the sweltering carriages, sat within view outside the train fanning themselves, the women, as was common, with their skirts. Gladys cursed and Xianyi, dabbing at his brow with a folded handkerchief, made some jokes that had us all laughing again. At moments like that, I could see how well that Daoist robe did suit him.
Arriving in Changsha, we were greeted with great ceremony by Gu Hua and bustled into the van that would take us deep into West Hunan. Bubbling over with stories of the train journey, bumping down pitted country roads alongside which gambolled impossibly cute black piglets, passing picturesque hamlets, we were in high spirits. Spirits was the key word for the lunch that broke our journey. Local hero Gu Hua had so excited our luncheon hosts about the two living national treasures, not to mention the 'extremely famous French translator (Philippe), extremely famous Australian scholar (Geremie) and extremely famous foreign journalist (me)', informing them no doubt as well about the Yangs' prodigious drinking habits, that they pressed on us huge bowls of the local brew along with a great spread of spicy cuisine. It was a very hot day. Back in the van, we found ourselves no longer quite as entranced by the countryside bouncing now rather uncomfortably past the windows. I was drifting off when I became aware of the sound of Xianyi cheerfully throwing up into Geremie's precious Cultural Revolution bookbag, and then, for good measure, onto Geremie himself. Finally, a naughty little smile still on his face, Xianyi passed out on Geremie's shoulder. That someone could do that and remain so loveable is a kind of testament to character in itself.
That night, in some obscure county inn, was passed by Geremie, Philippe and myself in bleary terror that our National Living Treasure, who'd never quite come to, might either expire or require the sort of medical care that would not be available in such an isolated place. At least the heat meant Geremie could wash his clothes and bookbag so they'd be dry, or nearly so, by morning. Xianyi rose in an excellent mood, ready for the next stage of the journey.
Fig.2 From left to right: Yang Xianyi, Ai Qing (who called himself 'The Living Fossil') and Gladys Yang. (Photograph: GRB)
After the visit to the film set, which was very good fun, Gu Hua took us off sightseeing. First stop was Tianzi Shan 天子山, where he had a friend who was building a mountaintop hotel. On the road up the mountain, in mist and rain that already made the poor road seem treacherous, we encountered the result of a recent avalanche that blocked our way. Geremie, Philippe and I got out of the van to help the People's Liberation Army soldiers shift the boulders and rocks off the road. Our destination turned out to be an unfinished hostel with no electricity but a manager enraptured by Gu Hua's delivery of such extremely famous guests into his care. We were less thrilled, especially when we realised that the muddy, sloping field behind the hotel had to serve for a toilet; I helped Gladys and Geremie Xianyi to mount this dark and uncertain ground at night. Philippe, reading in bed by candlelight and falling asleep, then managed to set his room on fire. It was a memorable stay, to say the least. We were all a bit grumpy with Gu Hua and keen to reach the scenic area of Zhangjia Jie 张家界. When the van's driver stopped at a most unscenic crossroads and some local officials poured out of a little government building with the news that a banquet awaited Gu Hua's extremely famous guests, even Xianyi's good humour was tested. I was pushed out of the van to deal with the situation, which I did by bowing and scraping but insisting that the extraordinary allure of their province's famous Zhang Jiajie had us in such thrall that we regretted we were unable take up their offer, have a lovely banquet and a good life, goodbye. I dragged a livid Gu Hua back into the van. The mutiny left him fuming for several days. Xianyi, however, quickly regained his good cheer and, even if it took Gu Hua a while to forgive us, we all agreed it had been a most excellent adventure.
When Geremie and I got married in Beijing a few months later, we had two receptions, one for our younger friends at the house of Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Robert Thompson (now publisher and editor of the Wall Street Journal among other things) and his then partner Renata Atkin, and one for our older friends at the house of Gladys and Xianyi where we were lovingly teased and showered with invaluable paintings and cartoons, calligraphed poems and fans from this incomparable group.
Over the next two years, Yang Xianyi applied for and was granted membership of the Communist Party. Geremie and I were convinced that one of his greatest motivations for this surprising move had been in order to preface everything he said with a droll 'We Party members…' Yet in 1989, when Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng sanctioned the massacre of unarmed citizens protesting against corruption and for free speech and democracy, Xianyi spoke out bravely and fiercely on the BBC against the horror and with a gravitas made all the more powerful by its contrast with his customary lightness. We feared for Xianyi after that, but in the end, the Party simply expelled him.
In 1999, Gladys passed away. She was eighty. Her death was catastrophic for Xianyi; the non-stop banter in which Gladys groused and Xianyi teased never left anyone doubting their wholehearted devotion to one another. A year after Gladys's death, I visited Xianyi with my then boyfriend Tim. Xianyi had moved to another apartment that belonged to the Foreign Languages Press. When he came to the door I was struck by how slow and shuffling his walk had become, and there was a sadness in his eyes that he no longer cared or was able to hide. For the first time since I'd known him, I understood him to be an old man. Still, after dinner, in a playful mood, he challenged Tim to an arm-wrestling match. Tim, a strong lad, was terrified of breaking the octogenarian's stick-thin arm and went easy, but told me afterwards that Xianyi had showed remarkable strength. No one else visited that evening. An era had passed.
Later, Xianyi moved to a courtyard house in Xiaojinsi Hutong 小金丝胡同 behind the Back Lakes [Houhai] with his daughter Yang Zhi and her Canadian husband David. His health was deteriorating. He fought several battles with cancer and suffered some sort of stroke that rendered him unable to walk or make much use of one half of his body. He had a full-time carer. In 2008, in Beijing for several months on an Asialink Fellowship, I visited Xianyi as much as possible. He was in his nineties by now and wasn't reading much. His health had forced him to cut back on drinking and smoking. His false teeth annoyed him so much he spent as much time as possible without them. It was as if life had decided to strip him of his pleasures, one by one. He said more than once that he was not attached to this life; if the cancer returned, he did not wish for aggressive treatment.
Fig.3 West Lake, Hangzhou. (Photograph: GRB)
If his face had grown puffy and pale, and his toothless mouth blurred his words, he could still raise a chuckle. Yet the zest had gone out of him and he was no longer vitally interested in the worlds of literature, culture and politics in which he'd once been absorbed.
In 2009, I was translating the subtitles for the film on the famous Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳) by the director Chen Kaige 陈凯歌. I had got stuck on some famous verses from the Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ting 牡丹亭). I called up Xianyi. He told me to come over, and the two of us spent an enjoyable hour or so puzzling over how best to render the ambiguous and delicate poetry of the libretto into the terse form of the filmic subtitle. He was ninety-four, and still razor sharp.
One day, I was meeting up with an old friend I hadn't seen in years. She had known Xianyi so I suggested we meet at his place, thinking it would entertain him to see her. The daughter of a Long March general and onetime vice-chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, she'd been a filmmaker and a businesswoman. Now, it turned out, she headed an organisation promoting Confucian values and education. She arrived with a very serious young acolyte. The young woman's ornate genuflections to Xianyi were quite over the top and somewhat alarming. I think Yang Zhi, Xianyi and I all feared she was going to fling herself to the floor at any moment for the full kowtow. It was almost a parody of old ways and an absolute conversation killer. I saw the boredom and exhaustion in his eyes and felt guilty for my part in it. I imagined that he, like me, felt Gladys's absence acutely at such moments: if Gladys had been there, she'd have made some quick, sardonic comment in which Xianyi, himself remaining the polite and gentlemanly host, would have revelled.
In 2010, a cancerous growth was pressing down on Xianyi's throat. He was not very interested in fighting it; enough was enough. The last time I saw Xianyi, he was in hospital. He'd become even more frail. The tumour, visible in his neck, made it hard for him to swallow or breathe. But he never once complained, and the old light came into his eyes when I walked in and kissed him hello. Nervousness made me chatter, and when I realised I was tiring him, I took my leave. I returned to Australia a few days later and several weeks after that, I heard he had died.
I miss Xianyi terribly.
He and his peers were, in a sense, the last literati. I don't believe that any generation in China since has been able to offer up a group of intellectuals with anything approaching the combination of traditional learning; contemporary sensibility; political nous; social grace; and ironic, sharp and yet never vulgar wit that Xianyi and his friends held in their very DNA. They were young when Communism was still a contested idea, when the old society was crumbling and uncertain but the new one with all its certainties and dogmas had not yet been born. Xianyi lived through revolution and then every ideological campaign that revolution, enshrined as government, threw at its people. He witnessed thirty years of social, cultural and economic reform. With his passing, and the passing of his coterie, China has lost more than just a few living legends and national treasures—it has lost a precious part of its cultural memory.
Sometimes, in the 1980s when the calligrapher Huang Miaozi, the cartoonist Ding Cong, and others would gather at the Yangs, the conversation would turn to death. Miaozi, plump and quite proud of the fact that despite living in relative poverty he'd managed to acquire gout, 'an emperor's disease', as he never tired of telling people, insisted that he wanted his flesh to be chopped into mince and, mixed with garlic chives or cabbage, made into dumplings that all his friends could enjoy at a big funerary feast. Xianyi, on the other hand, only wanted to be pickled in his beloved scotch. A big jar, Johnny Walker and the man himself, preserved with that wry little smile forever.
 For more on Layabouts Lodge, see the Editorial of this issue.
 In the 1980s, these editorials could have a direct and immediate impact on people's lives, and were scrutinised, down to the letter, in a way that would appear incomprehensible, not to mention absurd, to young Chinese today.
 Xianyi's earlier application to join the Party, during a Communist push to enlist into its ranks respected members of the former educated elite in the early 1980s, was torpedoed by a 'patriotic overseas Chinese' university lecturer who reported that Xianyi had met the writer and academic Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys, a scholar famous for such books as The Chairman's New Clothes and Chinese Shadows) in private during a trip to Canberra in 1980.—Ed.