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03rd June 2016

Yang Jiang dies aged 104

Last week, the College was saddened to learn of the death of Yang Jiang, wife of Exeter’s most famous Chinese alumnus Qian Zhongshu (1935, English). A Chinese author, playwright and translator of international renown and respect, her death was announced on 25th May and a thoughtful and powerful obituary has been published by the New York Times.

“This is a sad time for all those who have studied Chinese literature, and definitely more so for members of Exeter College who are familiar with her and her husband’s works – whether through the GSCE or A-Level equivalent syllabuses on Chinese Literature in Asia, or otherwise through the many plays and TV series that had been based on their works”, said Wing So, a DPhil Candidate in Law at Exeter College, Oxford who greatly admires the literary works of this scholarly couple.

Rector Emerita, Dame Frances Cairncross, visited Wuxi University in March 2014 to attend a conference jointly organised by Exeter and Jiangnan University which she had proposed and supported from inception. At the conference, entitled “From Wuxi to Oxford: Qian Zhongshu’s life journey and academic accomplishments”, she co-presented a paper which was heard by more than 50 scholars who are specialists in the research of this literary couple’s works as well as their remarkable lives. Her co-presenter, Chen Li, was a graduate of Merton College, Oxford, who had done extensive research into Qian’s time at Oxford. He said “Madame Yang was indeed a most remarkable lady. Her death is being widely reported in all kinds of media – inevitably, all these articles highlighted her husband, Exeter College, Oxford University, and their sojourn in England.”

Already an admired author and translator prior to her marriage to Qian in 1935, the work for which she is most well-known is her translation of Don Quixote, having taught herself Spanish in order to do justice to the original. This work started in 1966 just as the Cultural Revolution was inaugurated, opposing endeavours that were considered intellectual or, indeed, “western”. She completed most of this work before having it confiscated by Red Guard militants and being consigned to “reform through labour” for many years in the Henan Province. She completed her work as the Cultural Revolution subsided and finally published the completed translation in 1978. It remains, to this day, the definitive translation of this key Spanish work.

Exeter College plans to mark the passing of both Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu – two great Chinese literary heroes – in a forthcoming symposium on “The Power of the Written Word” and consideration is being given for the creation of a scholarship in their memory, to encourage other students from China to come to Oxford for graduate studies.


Qian Zhongshu (1910–1998) was a Chinese literary scholar and writer, known for his wit and erudition. He is best known for his satirical novel Fortress Besieged. His works of non-fiction are characterised by their large amount of quotations in both Chinese and Western languages (including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin). He also played an important role in digitizing the Chinese classics late in his life. Qian married his wife Yang Jiang (who was to become a successful playwright and translator and died earlier this year) in 1935. In the same year he received  the Sino-British Boxer Indemnity Scholarship for post-graduate study in Great Britain – one of the most coveted and competitive scholarships in his time. This government sponsorship enabled him to further his studies abroad having studied at Tsinghua University (Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures) since 1929. Together with his wife, Qian headed for the University of Oxford. After spending two years at Exeter College, he completed all the requirements for the degree of BLitt. Shortly after his daughter Qian Yuan was born, he studied for one more year at the University of Paris, before returning to China in 1938, in which year he was appointed a professor at Tsinghua University at the age of 28. Over the following years, Madame Yang’s reputation as an author, translator, and playwright grew despite the difficult times in which she lived and the loss of her daughter in 1997 and husband in 1998.

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