A Chinese artist in the English Lake District
Chiang Yee, who grew up in Jiangxi, wrote an illustrated journal about his visit to the area in 1936, which was published the following year with the title The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland.
Chiang wrote about ‘the particular joy’ of his time in the Lake District, which is now a national park, saying it was ‘the most agreeable period of all my English experience’. He describes it as ‘constantly green, beautiful and peaceful’ and at the end of his visit he wrote ‘I leave this Lakeland, and with longing seek to return’.
Chiang, who had left China in 1933, missed the lakes and mountains that he had grown up with. He was born at the foot of Lu Shan. The Lake District, which is also known as Lakeland, is famous for its scenery of lakes and mountains and attracts visitors from across the world. The area includes castles, historic houses and forests and quaint, picturesque villages. It is also popular with people who enjoy walking, cycling and sailing.
Arriving at Wastwater, in the west of the Lake District, in August 1936 Chiang wrote:
‘This morning I paid my visit to the lake and mountain,
They smiled at me like relatives and friends.’
Chiang was also attracted to the Lake District partly because of its links with English poets like William Wordsworth, who lived there, as well as famous artists who had visited and painted the area, such as John Constable and J M W Turner. He shared their love of natural beauty and their desire to capture it in their work.
In the north of the Lake District at Derwentwater he wrote:
‘The loveliness of Nature,
And Derwentwater that I love,
Folded in and cloaked with green,
Sitting for a while to enjoy tranquillity’
At Windermere, Chiang took a trip on one of the boats that travel up and down the lake. He talked about the boat moving ‘with some slowness and dignity over the water’ as ‘The mountains on either side passed from sight one after the other with an apparent movement both harmonious and rhythmic’. As the boat passed ‘a rugged range very like a sea with towering waves rising one beyond the other as far as the eye could reach’ he says ‘I could not help exclaiming aloud: ‘How beautiful it is; I should like to stay here for ever!’
He quoted Wordsworth:
‘Lake, islands, promontories, gleaming bays,
A universe of Nature’s fairest forms
Proudly revealed with instantaneous burst,
Magnificent, and beautiful and gay.’
Chiang adds ‘Oh, Windermere, Windermere, you will draw me back to you again soon!’
He also visited William Wordsworth’s famous home, which is close to Grasmere, one of the Lake District’s smallest lakes, writing of ‘the very deep feeling of my heart for the lake and the poet’.
Chiang uses a mix of descriptive narrative and illustrations to convey the distinctive character of the Lakeland landscape and the people he met during his two-week stay. In addition to talking about some of the people he meets, he was clearly interested in the ‘plentiful’ sheep he saw in the Lake District hills. He wrote: ‘That is one of the things which struck me most in pondering the difference between England and my own country, because I have seldom seen sheep wandering among the hills in Central China’.
The book is also interwoven with references to China, and reflections on Chinese cultural history and traditions.
Chiang Yee wrote about how he later revisited ‘my beloved English Lakeland’ in a dream. His essay ‘A dream of the English Lakeland’ was published in The Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club in 1938. He wrote of finding himself on top of a mountain called Scafell and said “In one breath, I whispered to myself ‘Oh, Mighty Nature!’ gazing round on all four sides.”
The poet and literary critic Herbert Read described Chiang as, “a master of the art of landscape painting” and his art work as “... the modern expression of a national tradition”. He said Chiang Yee's book and his illustrations “challenge our complacency… What Mr Chiang shows, no less clearly than Wordsworth, is the universality of all true modes of feeling and thinking.”
Anna Wu, who was an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which held an exhibition of his work in 2012, said: “Chiang breathed new life into many of Britain’s most iconic landscapes and landmarks in a unique style that allowed them to be both instantly recognisable and yet different looking; capturing the essence rather than an exact visual record of the subject.
“The ability to capture the atmosphere and spirit of his subjects is arguably indebted to both the use of Chinese media and techniques, and traditional Chinese conventions of painting from memory rather than life; allowing a scene to become imbued with the particular emotional responses of the painter.”
Chiang Yee himself commented that: “Our Chinese artist tries to paint the Nature in his mind, not the Nature in Nature, and so his pictures do not search for exact resemblance. Nevertheless, resemblance is inherent in his work, for it derives from genuine natural impressions.”
Zhang De, a Chinese American academic who has written a biography of Chiang Yee, wrote: “Chiang’s Chinese identity allows him to gain a unique vantage point from which to comment on Western culture, and he is able to draw out differences in similarities – and similarities in differences – between the East and West.”
Chiang Yee went on to produce other books in The Silent Traveller series, recounting visits to other parts of Great Britain, including Edinburgh and the Yorkshire Dales, as well as travels in America.
He was among the first Chinese writers to write books in English in the first half of the 20th century. Chiang also wrote two seminal books on Chinese painting and calligraphy, memoirs of his childhood in China, and several children’s books. He is also credited with creating the Chinese translation for Coca Cola 可口可乐.
Chiang Yee in China
Chiang Yee was born in Jiangxi in south-west China in 1903 where his father was a portrait artist. He had a classical education based on Confucian teachings in his early childhood but later studied maths, physics and chemistry. He graduated with a degree in chemistry in Nanjing in 1926. He then had a short career working in local government before deciding to leave China in 1933.
Chiang died in China in October 1977 after spending over forty years away from his homeland. He is buried on the slopes of Lu-Shan.
Chiang Yee in Britain
When he arrived in Britain Chiang Yee turned to painting and illustrating to make a living.
At this time, Chinese art was still unfamiliar and little understood by most people in Britain. However, interest in Chinese art was increasing and in 1935 he was invited to write a book ‘The Chinese Eye: An interpretation of Chinese painting’. The book played an important part in demystifying Chinese art for a British audience.
Following the book’s publication he became a regular lecturer and commentator on Chinese art and culture, including contributing to BBC radio programmes. In 1936 there was an exhibition of his paintings in London and in 1938 he also went on to write a book on calligraphy.
The Silent Traveller series
It is Chiang Yee’s travel books which gave him the most significant commercial and artistic success. The first edition of The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland sold out in a month. After his book on the Lake District he wrote books on visits to the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh and Dublin, as well as a book about his life in London.
His pen name 哑行者 – the Silent Traveller – was inspired by Confucian traditions of scholarly retreat, which was a practice associated with many Chinese painters and literati.
He wrote that: “Whenever I walk or travel I am generally silent; I like to observe the scenery closely, and sometimes I lose all consciousness of myself in it… I was almost entirely silent for a whole fortnight in the Lakes, and the joy born out of that tranquility in my mind will render unforgettable my years in England… Now that I have been there I burden myself unceasingly with imaginary revisitings.”
The books were widely read in Britain and in other countries. As Chiang Yee puts it, he aimed to provide a view of Britain ‘from the point of view of a homesick Easterner’. At the time, there was a lot of western literature about China, but books about the west by Chinese authors were very rare. He wrote that he did ‘not set out to turn the British scene into a Chinese one’ but ‘to interpret British scenes with my Chinese brushes, ink and colours, and my native method of painting’.
Poetry is also central to the books and he uses poems written by himself and other poets to help convey his feelings about the places he visits. In doing this he is following the practice of traditional Chinese art, in which poems are included as part of paintings.
Anna Wu writes that: “The Silent Traveller books offered readers the novelty of am ‘Orientalised’ view of Britain, coupled with a comforting account of familiar British landscapes, which provided gentle escapism during the dark days of the Second World War and the depression that followed it.”
In 1955 Chiang Yee moved to the United States.
Learn more about Chiang Yee, visit the V & A website www.vam.ac.uk