- Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East: A Cultural Biography
In Asian American cultural history, Chiang Yee deserves much more attention than he has been given. Da Zheng's biography has finally done him justice. This is an important book about an important person. Chiang was an immigrant, a poet, a travel writer, an artist, and a patriot in his own way to both his home and adopted country. Born in a traditional family, growing up in a chaotic China in the 1920s, having a family-arranged marriage, and graduating from a good Chinese university with a chemistry degree, Chiang seemed to become an artist by accident. When he left China for England in 1933, he meant to study government administration and return to his wife and children for a normal life after he completed his Western education. However, his travel was a one-way trip. His destination was to become a cultural ambassador of China to the West. In London, he worked hard on his English; focused on Chinese painting, calligraphy, and cultural traditions; and published more than twenty books in his career, and illustrated most of them. His Silent Traveller series turned out to be immensely popular. In 1955, he moved to the United States, and became a lecturer at Columbia University until 1977 and taught Chinese culture classes there. He was the first Chinese to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, in 1956, and was subsequently appointed as Emerson Fellow in Poetry at Harvard University in 1958. He became a naturalized citizen in 1966.
Da Zheng's biography is more than a celebration of Chiang's artistic talent and literary accomplishments. This meticulous documentation of Chiang's life, art, poems, private letters, and travel writings explores and reveals cultural sensibilities of exiled educated Chinese in the 1920s and 1970s. When Chiang arrived in London at the age of thirty, he knew only a few English words, but in two years [End Page 129] he successfully published a book in English on Chinese art. Then more than a dozen of publications followed this success. Chiang's book on Chinese calligraphy is still considered by many scholars one of the best on this subject in the West.
No doubt Chiang as a famous artist and worldwide traveler had an interesting personal life to be told. But this biography is not a tale of one person's success. Zheng has placed Chiang's life into a larger historical context. In Shanghai, for example, Chiang twice saw a sign on the entrance of a park proclaiming, "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed." It is a story of how war, imperialist invasion, government corruption, or political chaos in China pushed many talented Chinese youth overseas to look for new ideas, opportunities, and hope in the West. Once in the West, when being immersed in a new cultural and social environment, Chiang and many such educated youth discovered a deep love and compassion for China hidden in their heart. Their intellectual, artistic, and social engagement in the West thus became centered more and more toward home. As Zheng puts it, Chiang's "transcultural and transnational experiences were so extensive that reading the story of his life is like watching all of China change, transform, develop, and interact with the West. It is like setting out on a journey to revisit twentieth-century China and the history of modern Chinese in the world."
The biography vividly informs us about Chiang's modest and cheerful personality, keen observation of Western society, and friendship with Chinese and Western intellectuals. Chiang's paintings and publications are charming and refreshing themselves, as Zheng's book relates. The volumes in his Silent Traveller series were fascinating illustrated books about cities like Oxford, London, Paris, Boston, New York, and San Francisco as seen through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant. Chiang's watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings were Chinese art about Western scenes. His talent and success were...