Zhang Yihe is a scholar of performing arts and an author of memoir-style histories of mid-twentieth century intellectuals, politicians and literati.
Born in 1942, Zhang is the second daughter of Zhang Bojun 章伯钧, the influential democratic politician and intellectual who was active in the government of the People’s Republic in the 1950s until his downfall in the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, when he was labeled ‘China’s Number One Rightist’.
Zhang Yihe entered the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in 1960, but was demoted to a Sichuanese opera troupe in Sichuan in 1963 for having offended Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife and a leading figure in the revolutionisation of Beijing opera) by penning the line: ‘He who prospers advances the fortunes of his minions’ 一人得道，鸡犬升天 in her diary. Seven years later, when the Cultural Revolution was sweeping over China, Zhang was given a twenty-one year jail sentence as a counter-revolutionary. In 1979, the year that her husband Tang Liangyou 唐良友 died of acute pancreatitis, she was released and allowed to return to Beijing, where she joined the Chinese National Academy of Arts and pursued studies in theatre.
Following her retirement in 2001, Zhang turned to the writing of historical biography. In 2004, she published The Last Nobles 最后的贵族, a semi-fictional account of the lives of several key intellectuals and politicians and their families in China during the Anti-Rightist Movement, including the editor and journalist Chu Anping 储安平, Kang Tongbi 康同璧, daughter of the renowned late Qing scholar-activist Kang Youwei 康有为, the political scientist Luo Longji 羅隆基 who was minister for forest industry in the 1950s, Shi Liang 史良, the famous female legal scholar, the eminent calligrapher and collector Zhang Boju张伯驹, and her own father Zhang Bojun. The book was published on the Mainland as The Past is Not Like Smoke 往事并不如烟, a heavily edited edition that found popularity with academics as well as the general public and continued to circulate widely in pirated editions despite being banned. In a follow-up collection of biographical essays, Past Stories of Actors 伶人往事, Zhang explored the lives of famous opera performers during the Mao-era political campaigns.
The individuals in Zhang’s works are portrayed as highly talented individuals striving to retain their humanity despite the ruthless politics of the day. Her sympathy for and identification with her subjects is evident in lines such as the following from The Last Nobles:
As it was impossible for an impoverished China to support a large class of aristocratic intellectuals, the majority of these intellectuals were consigned to the same fate as manual labourers, working with their hands and enduring hunger and cold. Yet they were content with their servile positions and supported themselves and their families in cramped quarters through hard honest work. In a country where life and knowledge were increasingly devalued, there was clearly little use for wit and intellect. Besides, delicate trees are easily broken when subjected to force and stress. People who are neither Chinese nor intellectuals will find it difficult to appreciate the sheer weight and pressure under which Chinese intellectuals found themselves in the history of modern China.
Though she describes some of her work as fragmented memoirs, her educational and family background and social status grants her unique insights into the lives of famous artists and intellectuals. Her books are thus a blend of literary history and autobiography and her passion for her subjects is evident. Though she seldom discusses the politics of the Maoist period per se, she offers a richly emotive account of it through her narrations of the many lives destroyed by Mao-era campaigns, directives and policies. In 2004, she received the International PEN Award For Independent Chinese Writing.
Zhang is praised by her admirers for her critical insights and sharp observations. She has also published social commentaries about the persistent negative legacy of the Maoist past. In 2009, she wrote two articles in which she accused two people, the celebrated writer and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) member Feng Yidai 冯亦代, and the cartoonist and art historian Huang Miaozi 黄苗子, of being state informants who helped to send her father and a family friend to prison, kicking up a storm of controversy in the media.
With He Weifang 贺卫方, a law professor and rights activist, she published Piano Four-Hands 四手联弹 (2010), an eclectic collection of essays and dialogues on pop culture, history, philosophy and geography, deliberately eschewing the big issues of politics and national destiny. Zhang has recently turned to creative fiction, publishing The Liu Woman 刘氏女 (2011), The Yang Woman 杨氏女 (2012) and The Zou Woman 邹氏女 (2013), a series of novellas based on women she encountered during her decade in prison.
‘We shouldn’t be attached to this world’, she said in an interview in 2012 (link). She sees herself more as a story-teller of the past:
Death is the final form of life, after I finish writing all I ought to, I will consciously seek death. No epitaph.
- Zhang Yihe’s Sina Weibo, where she actively engages in discussions about theater and politics.