Gladys Yang was born Gladys Margaret Tayler in Beijing, China, a daughter of British missionaries. As a small child, she was sent along with her siblings to England for their safety and to attend boarding school. She went to become the first undergraduate student at Oxford University to read Chinese. She graduated in 1940. At Oxford, she met Yang Xianyi, and they moved back to China and married there. They taught at various universities and then became prominent translators of Chinese classic literature into English. The couple were named "class enemies" during the Cultural Revolution, and kept in separate prisons from 1968 to 1972, while their three children were sent to communes or forced labor at factories in the provinces. After their release, they were able to publish with greater freedom and befriend many younger writers. Gladys became active in the women's movement and translated works by women writers.