China’s — Ye Tingfang

Ye Tingfang
Born in November 1936 in southern China, Professor Ye Tingfang is a famous scholar and translator. Before he retired from the Foreign Language Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he translated major works by Franz Kafka, Dylan Matt and other modern Western scholars. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich and is known for his famous proposal urging the government to end its one-child policy.

At nearly 80 years old, Ye is a night owl who socializes, reads books and writes from 5 pm to 4 am He feels it is only during the deep quiet hours of the night he can find his heart’s inner direction. His post-modern Western research matches his post-modern schedule, where he eats dinner first, lunch second and breakfast last.

He still enjoys mountain climbing and attributes much of his good health to taking cold baths when he was young. He thinks his romantic and optimistic personality also plays a role in his longevity. And an event that caused him a great deal of pain when it happened, turned out to have shaped his destiny. In fact, he’s often said: “If I had not lost a limb, I would probably be a farmer and not the person I am today.”

check this out

Similar to hero Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes to find that he has suddenly morphed into a giant bug, Ye spent many years feeling like a pariah. Though the character in the story lives as a bug, he retains the conscience of a human being and is still concerned about how to help his father pay off his debts and enroll his sister in music school. However, his father, mother, and sister come to view him as a burden and abandon him.

Metamorphism became an allegory for Ye’s own childhood nightmare. Born in a remote mountainous village of Qu County (now known as Zhuxi County), his mother died young and his father developed lung cancer. Since generation after generation of the family had been farmers, his father put all his hopes into his three sons. Ever since he was little, Ye was always the smart and studious second son, and his father’s favorite. His father was determined to send him to school in the village by selling rice seeds.

But when Ye was just 9 years old, a tragedy changed the course of his life. While playing, he fell off the monkey bars onto a hardwood floor and severely damaged his left arm. Later, after his wound became infected, he lost his left arm. This turn of events transformed him from the most pampered person in his family to a perceived burden. His father, worried that his middle son would no longer be useful, became more and more temperamental. When his father was particularly irritable, he expressed his disdain for his once cherished son and even once blamed him “for not dying.”

Ye Tingfang
During childhood, Ye’s father often yelled at him until he trembled uncontrollably. Even his 4-year-old brother was influenced by their father’s behavior and started cursing his older brother, too. Like Kafka’s Gregor, Ye felt like a second-class citizen. After he completed elementary school, school administrators refused to let him enter middle school.

Out of concern, Ye’s father gave him the best half of the family land, saying, “I won’t be able to support you in the future, so use this half acre to support yourself. But I won’t find a wife for you.” Stubbornly, Ye refused to accept the land, exclaiming, “I don’t believe having one arm will starve me.”

In the paddy fields, Ye plowed using an ox. After noticing a hilly piece of land in the village that no one was cultivating, he was determined to use this wasteland. He planted cedar and wheat. Eventually, the cedar tree took root, and the wheat started to turn green and grew promisingly. Feeling confident, he was convinced he would be able to support himself.

In the spring of 1950, his cousin told him: “Now is the new China and Hengzhou Middle School has started matriculating students again, so you should apply.” Since Ye was expecting a good harvest, he hesitated. But the village people persuaded him by reminding him that doing farm work with one hand is not easy, and that he should apply to the school so he can study to become an elementary school teacher or work for the government. The young farmer finally decided to abandon his field, took the entrance exam, and was quickly admitted.

check this out

In middle school, Ye was a diligent student. Since he had only one hand, he tried harder than everyone else. When he had to use a ruler to draw maps in mathematics class, he learned to use his thumb to pin down the ruler and one of his other fingers to draw the lines. He became so talented at creating hand-drawn maps, they were displayed throughout the school. By the end of his first semester, he was the highest scoring student in his class, and by the end of the second semester, he had become the highest scoring student in the entire school.

For five consecutive years, Ye was the lead student in his English class. He built a strong foundation in languages during his middle school years, where his passion for literature took root. Ye’s teacher, who was not afraid to point out grammatical errors in Chairman Mao’s reports, showed the young student what it meant to be brave enough to uphold the truth. The professor’s courses also helped him develop an interest in foreign literature.

More importantly, during middle school, he learned to deal with his disability. In a paper he once wrote titled, “A Day in My Life,” he included a lengthy narrative on how others viewed him. After reading it, his language teacher told him, “In most circumstances, how other people talk about you is normal; they do not have ill intentions. If you are resentful, you will lose a lot of friends.”

Shaken by this advice, Ye started to reflect and realized that his views might be more skewed and dark because of his physical difference and childhood adversities. This profound revelation aside, during middle school Ye also began to cultivate his musical talent. A good singer, he was dubbed “the iron voice,” and performed often. With few cultural events available in the countryside, he organized a rural opera group every winter and summer break. He wrote his own screenplays, directed them and performed music for his countrymen. He once missed three weeks of school because of his opera performances and was almost kicked out of school.

In 1955, Ye applied to Peking University, but despite his excellent test scores, he was not admitted. As a fallback plan, he tutored students at a residential school while preparing to take the entrance exam for Beida University the following year. At the time, he was earning about seven RMB (Renminbi)—a little over a dollar—per month. It was not even enough for food, but he endured. During the second year, when filling out the preference forms for schools, he still selected Beida University as his top choice. This time, Ye was accepted into Beida’s Western Language department.

check this out

In the 50’s, Beida University’s Western Language department was full of outstanding scholars. It had top professors such as Feng Zhi, Zhu Guangqian and Tian Dewang. Feng Zhi lectured about the history of German literature and Zhu Guangqian lectured on the history of western aesthetics. After Ye graduated from Beida University with high marks, he stayed on and taught. In 1964, Feng Zhi, who was transferred to the Chinese Academy of Science’s Foreign Literature Institute, transferred Ye to the German Literature department.

In the Foreign Language Institute, Ye’s responsibility was to edit the internal magazine, Theory of Modern Art Series. This publication brought to light the Western concept of Existentialism—characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Ye noticed that in the Western arts arena, Kafka’s “hit rate” was very high, but he was unfamiliar with Kafka’s work. Yet he heard the author was considered to be decadent.

However, with the ensuing political movement, foreign literature turned into a restricted zone that no one would dare touch. From 1970 to 1972, Ye, along with other Foreign Language Institute professors and researchers, was sent to Xi County’s prison labor camps.

Two years after returning, alumni He Qifang wanted to translate Heinrich Heine’s poems. He needed someone who knew German, hence, he chose Ye to be his teacher. The two of them were often together chatting and searching for old books. They heard the foreign language bookstores in Tong County had a storehouse of two million original copies of various books on clearance. He and He Qifang quickly ran to the bookstore and, among the pile of books, Ye discovered a thick volume of the selected works of Kafka, published in the German Democratic Republic. These books included The Castle, The Trial and some short stories, including The Metamorphosis.

That night, he stayed up reading until the next morning, feeling like he was in another world. His sense of ideas expanded, and after reading The Metamorphosis for himself, he exclaimed, “This is what’s called decadent?” He had an indescribable feeling and thought, One day I must translate these books.

A few years later, the Cultural Revolution came to an end, and an intellectual circle began to re-emerge. In the one and only literary journal that published foreign materials in China, World Literature, Ye decided to announce Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. He wanted to use this piece as the first step in smashing foreign literature “restriction zones.” He devoted more than two months to writing a positive evaluation of Kafka’s story, publishing it alongside Li Wenjun’s issue of The Metamorphosis. Because he didn’t know how well his work would be received, Ye didn’t dare use his real name.

When the translation and review were well received, Ye felt further emboldened and wrote another piece called “The Explorer of Modern Western Arts,” further debating Kafka through a monograph form in order to examine his work in the arts and literary arenas. But the good times didn’t last, and in 1983 the ideological field launched a “spiritual pollution” campaign accusing certain thinkers of “alienation,” which also happened to be the main theme in Kafka’s work. Ye was ordered to “clean up his own problems” by writing a 2000 word essay, examining his wrongful actions.

Although the Cultural Revolution was over, its effects lingered in yet another restrictive movement. Ye felt conflicted about how to respond to the accusation. He came up with an idea: After a one-week writing restriction period, he reported to the political leaders and said the metamorphosis in Kafka’s work is very complicated to explain, and he needed at least two months to write the essay. The political leaders felt helpless and warned him to get it done as quickly as possible. Fortunately, this new punitive movement lasted less than a month, and Ye avoided leaping over that difficult hurdle.

Since then, the political atmosphere has gradually relaxed, and more and more newspapers and publishing houses have invited Ye to study and translate Kafka’s work. After having just experienced the Cultural Revolution and the ridiculous laws that came with it, the relationship between Chinese readers and Kafka grew closer. The author’s view on civilization’s irrational development, along with his findings on human’s increasing sense of alienation was a revelation, awakening people’s awareness of both their suffering and their desires. Enthusiastic Kafka readers have expanded to all walks of life, finally welcoming his intellectual arrival in China. In turn, Ye became one of Kafka’s earliest Chinese translators.

check this out

In 1981, a German research institute invited Ye to participate in an academic exchange. While preparing his paperwork, he suddenly received a letter from the health department stating: “Due to your health status (referring to his left arm impairment), you cannot leave the country!” At that time, many Chinese still discriminated against individuals with disabilities, who were already feeling less than confident in their ability to support themselves. Ye understood this societal bias but felt helpless, certain he would have to decline the exciting invitation.

Working alongside him at the Chinese Academy of Literature was Qian Zhongshu, who stayed in contact with Ye. In the two years at the prison labor camp, they worked together in the vegetable garden and became close friends. After the Cultural Revolution, Zhongshu and his wife lived on the seventh floor of the literature academy’s apartment division for a few years, and Ye would often visit them after work. Every time he visited, they talked about topics that interested all of them.

The day after Ye learned he could not go abroad, he went to see the Zhongshus. In the midst of conversing, Zhongshu asked Ye if he ever considered studying abroad now that the restrictions had been relaxed. Ye told him his plans to travel and study abroad had just been denied. As soon as Zhongshu heard this, he made a very unpleasant face and stood suddenly. Without even thinking, he said, “Before liberation, Pan Guangdan traveled the world with his one leg. So you are saying that your lack of one arm is more confining than his lack of one leg!”

These words exhilarated Ye. He thought, “Well, here is the influence of the Western culture coming out.” Later, when chatting with Professor Fengzhi, he repeated Zhongshu’s words. Fengzhi understood and said, “Due to the fact that you have a disability, people should be more optimistic, supportive and not try to stop you by putting a negative spin on things.” Afterwards, Fengzhi helped Ye secure the backing to go to Germany for three months. After that initial trip, the next one would be much easier.

check this out

Kafka said the most beautiful songs are from the deep depths of hell. After experiencing the ups and downs of childhood, the hard work of his teenage years and the tenacious battles of his youth, Ye finally made it from the harshest winter to a gentle spring. In 2008, a story about his life journey was published in the Wall Street Journal. In 2010, Europe’s elite college, Zurich University, awarded him the highest academic title, an honorary doctorate. He was one of 13 people in the world chosen for the award, and the only Chinese citizen and literature scholar to receive it.

The trend of receiving such high honors began when two modern European writers, Kafka and Dylan Matt, were introduced to China. The crucial point is not how early they were introduced, but how these authors’ works directly related to the domestic social and cultural issues being debated in China at the time. Similar to his research, Ye’s translations showed his fearless pioneering spirit and integrity.

In 1998,Ye published an article in Guangming Daily called, “What Belongs to the World, Belongs to China!” The article discussed the inaccuracy of the design evaluation committee’s proposal for the three “one glance” aesthetic tender requirements for the National Grand Theater. He opposed the committee’s requirements that “one look, you know it is a grand theater; one look, you know it is China’s grand theater; one look, you know it is built next to Tiananmen Square.” For this very reason, Ye stirred up controversy. In the eyes of politicians, he was an old man who aroused suspicion.

When Ye travels overseas for cultural and academic exchanges, he pays particular attention to the foreign architecture and urban construction of the cities he visits. After he returned from one overseas trip, he published a long article entitled, “The Great Capital, I hope You Become More and More Beautiful.” It focused on the various aspects of the urban construction and art in the city of Beijing. His thoughts in this article caught the attention of the municipal government.

In 2007, Ye became a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He and 28 other members submitted a proposal demanding a stop to the country’s one-child policy as soon as possible. They wanted to restore the original policy allowing each family two children. Ye did this in order to help solve the social problems caused by the current policy, such as indulging only children, unequal enforcement of the law and women going abroad to have second children.

He also proposed it be legal for people with disabilities to drive, while asserting that having an independent mind and the guts to speak the truth are important attributes in the role an intellectual plays in society.

by Li Ying

China Artist

This story is part of a series of articles that will be published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities/Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

Read more articles from the Loni Anderson Issue

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: