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
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 hearts 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, hes often said: If
I had not lost a limb, I would probably be a farmer and not the person
I am today.
Similar to hero Gregor Samsa in Kafkas 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 Yes 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 fathers
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.
During childhood, Yes father often yelled at him until he trembled
uncontrollably. Even his 4-year-old brother was influenced by their
fathers behavior and started cursing his older brother, too.
Like Kafkas 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, Yes father gave him the best half of the family
land, saying, I wont be able to support you in the future,
so use this half acre to support yourself. But I wont find a
wife for you. Stubbornly, Ye refused to accept the land, exclaiming,
I dont 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.
A HEART WITH INDESTRUCTIBLE FAITH
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
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. Yes
teacher, who was not afraid to point out grammatical errors in Chairman
Maos reports, showed the young student what it meant to be brave
enough to uphold the truth. The professors 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 dollarper 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 Beidas Western Language department.
RECEIVING KAFKAS CHINESE VISA
In the 50s, Beida Universitys 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 Sciences Foreign Literature Institute,
transferred Ye to the German Literature department.
In the Foreign Language Institute, Yes responsibility was to
edit the internal magazine, Theory of Modern Art Series. This publication
brought to light the Western concept of Existentialismcharacterized
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,
Kafkas hit rate was very high, but he was unfamiliar
with Kafkas work. Yet he heard the author was considered to
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 Countys prison labor camps.
Two years after returning, alumni He Qifang wanted to translate Heinrich
Heines 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 whats
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 Kafkas 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 Kafkas story, publishing it alongside Li Wenjuns
issue of The Metamorphosis. Because he didnt know how well his
work would be received, Ye didnt 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 didnt 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 Kafkas work. Ye was ordered to clean up
his own problems by writing a 2000 word essay, examining his
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 Kafkas 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 Kafkas 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 authors
view on civilizations irrational development, along with his
findings on humans increasing sense of alienation was a revelation,
awakening peoples 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 Kafkas earliest Chinese translators.
YEs TRAVEL PLANS DENIED
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 academys 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
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 Zhongshus 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.
AN OLD MANS LOVE PROVOKES
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, Europes 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, Yes
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 committees proposal
for the three one glance aesthetic tender requirements
for the National Grand Theater. He opposed the committees requirements
that one look, you know it is a grand theater; one look, you
know it is Chinas 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
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....
in ABILITY Magazine
by Li Ying chinadp.net.cn
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
You can read
the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos
in our Digi issue, by clicking "Like"
from the Loni
Jack Eyers Modeling his Way!
Chinas Ye Tingfang
Drs. Scott and Wiener
Excerpt Human Rights
Anderson Caring for You
Twins Sisters and Lupus
New Research Disability and the Workplace
Senator Harkin The ADA Generation
in the Loni Anderson Issue; Senator HarkinThe ADA Generation;
Ashley Fiolek No More Red Eyes; Humor Holiday Cheer;
Paula Pearlman Lets Go Further to Protect People; Geri
Jewell Congress Needs a Reboot; Long Haul Paul Stella!
; Twins Sisters and Lupus; Excerpt Human Rights; Jack
Eyers Modeling his Way!; Chinas Ye Tingfang; Loni
Anderson Caring for You; Rebecca Tripp A Natural Tree
Hugger; Magical Meeting Drs. Scott and Wiener; ABILITY's Crossword
Puzzle; Events and Conferences...