Memoir of China’s Past Offers Lessons for Present

January 30, 2020

A newly translated memoir by the Chinese business leader Lan Yan provides an eye-opening view into China’s past. Published more than 50 years after the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History reveals the Yan family’s painful memories of that significant historical upheaval.
Yan, who is vice chair of the investment banking firm Lazard and chair and CEO of Lazard Greater China, visited the University on January 28 to tell her story and discuss the value of reflecting on difficult moments in history. She talked about the memoir, and her family, before a full room at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Yan’s grandfather, Yan Baohang, was a Chinese intelligence officer who thwarted a planned German attack on the Soviet Union during World War II, but was arrested in 1967 for allegedly spying for the Soviets. Her father, Yan Mingfu, once Mao Zedong’s personal Russian translator, was also arrested and imprisoned for nearly eight years. Yan and her mother, a former diplomat, were sent to a re-education camp, where they lived for the duration of Mingfu’s imprisonment.

Yan said that her intention in writing this book — which was published initially in French — was to present her account to a non-Chinese audience. But she added that she hopes eventually to bring her story to Chinese readers as well.

Young people in China today are “encouraged to look forward, not backward,” Yan said, suggesting that members of the older generation that lived through the Cultural Revolution are reluctant to remember such painful memories.

“But it’s important to learn from history and avoid repetition of mistakes,” she added. “The more you know about China’s history, the better you know China today.”

This event was organized by the School of International and Public Affairs and moderated by SIPA Dean Merit Janow.

The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History