Yan Mingfu, the son of a Chinese Communist Party spy who became an interpreter for Mao Zedong and a negotiator seeking to defuse the clash between the party and the students occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989, died Monday in Beijing. He was 91.
His daughter, Yan Lan, confirmed the death in a statement in the Chinese magazine Caixin. She did not specify a cause, but Mr. Yan had endured a succession of illnesses in old age.
“Dad passed away peacefully, completely ending a life filled with tumult and drama,” Ms. Yan wrote.
Mr. Yan was pushed to center stage during key moments in China’s Cold War years. He was a Russian translator for Mao when he built an alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and later when the alliance slipped into bitter animosity. He again joined the Chinese leadership in 1989, when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Beijing to heal the rift.
But the most dramatic and perhaps the most painful episode of Yan’s life involved the pro-democracy protests that occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989, dwarfing Gorbachev’s visit. Mr. Yan became an envoy for protesters and Chinese intellectuals trying to avoid a bloody crackdown.
“All his life, Yan Mingfu stayed inside the system as a Communist Party follower, but at that pivotal moment in 1989, his humanity outweighed his partisan mentality,” Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 protests who now lives in the United States United States, he wrote in a tribute. “People like him are very rare within the Communist Party.”
Mr. Yan was born in Beijing on November 11, 1931, the youngest of six children. His father, Yan Baohang, was an official in the ruling Nationalist Party who secretly joined the rival Communist Party in 1937 and became a clandestine agent. His mother, Gao Sutong, was a housewife.
The family moved from city to city as the Japanese invasion spread across China, Yan recalled in a memoir published in 2015, settling in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, which became the base of war for the nationalists.
The young Mingfu watched as mysterious visitors, Communist Party contacts, entered a room on the second floor of the family home to meet with his father.
“Obstantially, they were playing mahjong,” Yan wrote in his memoirs. “In fact, they were holding meetings.”
The family later moved to northeast China, near the border with the Soviet Union, and Mr. Yan decided to study Russian. After Mao’s communists took control in 1949, he became an interpreter for government officials. It was an era when China looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration, and Mr. Yan became an interpreter for Soviet advisers helping Mao’s government.
In 1955, she married Wu Keliang, also an interpreter. She died in 2015. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Yan, she is survived by a grandson, according to a memoir her daughter wrote about her family.
Mr. Yan accompanied Chinese leaders on their visits to the Soviet Union and in 1957 served as Mao’s interpreter during sensitive discussions in Moscow as tensions over ideology and foreign policy began to complicate ties between the two countries. .
On a hot August day in 1958, Mao and the visiting Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, exchanged thoughts while floating in a pool. Mr. Yan and another interpreter circled around the edge of the pool, straining to catch each leader’s words and shout them at the other leader.
“When they finished swimming and went outside to get dressed,” Mr. Yan recalled, “we were drenched in sweat.”
In the two decades that followed, Mr. Yan was swept up in the deepening turmoil of Mao’s revolution and the government’s growing distrust of officials with close contacts with the Soviet Union. He was jailed in 1967, accused of being a Soviet spy and traitor.
His wife, Ms. Wu, also endured harsh interrogation and was exiled to the camp. The couple and their daughter were reunited when Mr. Yan was released from prison in 1975 as Mao’s Cultural Revolution was waning.
By 1989, Mr. Yan was the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Department, which handled relations with intellectuals, as well as ethnic and religious groups.
When protesting students occupied Tiananmen Square to demand democratization and an end to official corruption, the Reform Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang sent Mr. Yan as a go-between, who wanted to persuade the students to end the corruption. hunger strike and ensure a successful visit to Beijing by Mr. Gorbachev.
Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader, had asked Mr. Yan to be present at Mr. Gorbachev’s meetings. “For many years, Mingfu was always involved in these Sino-Soviet negotiations,” Deng said, according to Yan’s memoirs. “Let him be here this time too.”
In meetings with student leaders, Mr. Yan tried to persuade them to call off the hunger strike, which had run high political passions. He and other officials have also turned to liberal-minded journalists, academics and intellectuals to try to find common ground with the protesters.
But the hardline party leaders were impatient for a showdown and rejected the possibility of making major concessions. And the fiery, fiery pro-democracy movement was not an easy bargaining partner.
Mr. Yan ventured to Tiananmen Square in mid-May to try to win over the protesters, many of whom collapsed on their bedding after refusing to eat and drink. He promised that his demands would be considered and that they would suffer no recriminations.
“When I see you students like this, I feel very, very upset,” Mr. Yan told the crowd, according to Zhou Duo, an intellectual who was with Mr. Yan in Tiananmen Square. “You students are in good spirits and your wishes are well-intentioned.”
He ended with a plea, “If you don’t believe my promises, you can take me, Yan Mingfu, back to your school as a hostage.”
Mr. Zhou wrote that Mr. Yan had shown him that “not all communists are one monolithic piece of iron.”
Deng put aside attempts to find a peaceful way out of the impasse. Less than three weeks later, troops arrived in central Beijing and fired on crowds that had gathered to protest or watch. Hundreds of civilians, or by some estimates thousands, were killed.
Mr. Yan was demoted. He spent the rest of his career as vice minister of civil affairs and then as president of the China Charitable Federation, a government-sponsored philanthropic organization.
In retirement, he wrote his memoirs. Reflecting official sensibilities about the discussion at the time, they did not mention the 1980s.