Author Stories Podcast Episode 821 | Lan Yan Interview

Today’s author interview guest is Lan Yan, author of The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History.

Through the sweeping cultural and historical transformations of China, entrepreneur Lan Yan traces her family’s history through early 20th Century to present day.

The history of the Yan family is inseparable from the history of China over the last century. One of the most influential business leaders of China today, Lan Yan grew up in the company of the country’s powerful elite, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. Her grandfather, Yan Baohang, originally a nationalist and ally of Chiang Kai-shek, later joined the communists and worked as a spy during World War II, never falling out of favor with Soong May-ling, aka Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek. Lan’s parents were diplomats, and her father, Yan Mingfu, was Mao’s personal Russian translator.

In spite of their elevated status, the Yan’s family life was turned upside down by the Cultural Revolution. One night in 1967, in front of a terrified ten-year-old Lan, Red Guards burst into the family home and arrested her grandfather. Days later, her father was arrested, accused of spying for the Soviet Union. Her mother, Wu Keilang, was branded a counter-revolutionary and forced to go with her daughter to a re-education camp for five years, where Lan came of age as a high school student.

In recounting her family history, Lan Yan brings to life a century of Chinese history from the last emperor to present day, including the Cultural Revolution which tore her childhood apart. The reader obtains a rare glimpse into the mysteries of a system which went off the rails and would decimate a large swathe of the intellectual, economic and political elite country. The little girl who was crushed by the Cultural Revolution has become one of the most active businesswomen in her country.

In telling her and her family’s story, Lan Yan serves up an intimate account of the history of contemporary China.

Lan Yan was not allowed to enter higher education because her Communist family had been designated as counter-revolutionaries. In 1969, she was sent to a re-education camp in Henan, where her mother had been for a year. In 1977, the year after the Cultural Revolution ended, she enrolled at university. Exceptionally motivated, she was awarded grants to study at the most prestigious universities in Europe and the United States. In 1991, she joined the Gide Loyrette Nouel law firm based in Paris and became the first foreign woman to make partner. In 1998, she returned to China to run the firm’s Beijing office. In 2011, Lan Yan joined Lazard as managing director to lead its Chinese activities. Today, she is the vice chairman of investment banking of Lazard and the chairman and CEO of Lazard Greater China (Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan).

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