Book Review: 'Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East' by Da Zheng

December 8, 2010

How much do academics matter? Da Zheng’s biography of scholar, calligrapher, and artist Chiang Yee, wants the answer to be “a lot,” and argues that Yee was a role model both for his own contemporaries, and for the modern world. It’s a little hard to believe that a relatively obscure academic could somehow be a role model for everyone in the twenty-first century. But then, Zheng is making a case for the relevance of both Chiang Yee, and academics in general, and not a very convincing one: if Chiang Yee is supposed to be “more relevant than ever,” then maybe the battle against scholarly irrelevance is going worse than we think.

Chiang Yee is mostly known in academic circles for his book Chinese Calligraphy, and to the general public for the Silent Traveller series of illustrated travel guides, which described several major cities (London, Paris, New York, Oxford) through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant. After fifty years in London and New York, he returned to China, where he was born and where he died in 1977.

Obviously, Yee was no desk jockey: his Silent Traveller won him considerable attention not only from the academic world, but also from big daily newspapers throughout the United States and England. And his spare writing style and whimsical artwork -- in one drawing, he depicts himself as a panda walking through San Francisco’s Union Square for the first time -- are captivating.

Still, it’s hard to see how Chiang Yee can be the “ultramodern man” that Zheng wants him to be. So much of his life seems tangential at best (except to Chiang Yee’s admirers and students) -- Zheng devotes two pages on Yee’s attitude toward English tea time -- and unflattering at worst. Yee, for example, happily took sole credit for his book The Chinese Eye, which was co-written, edited, and typeset by his collaborator and student Innes Jackson. And in spite of his books’ popularity, Yee had a hard time finding jobs and funding from the academic world, thanks to his lack of an advanced degree and a healthy dose of professional jealousy.

But mostly, it’s not clear why Yee is a useful model for the “globalized” world. It’s true that Yee believed in an essential harmony between Chinese and Western art and culture. But Yee and his readers saw his work primarily as a means to escape; even Zheng allows that “Yee’s artwork and travel writings … deliberately circumvented ideological or politically adversarial conditions.” So in 1936, as the Japanese continued to occupy Manchuria, Spain descended into civil war, and Nazi Germany began to rearm, Yee wrote to Jackson to try and dissuade her from becoming politically active. “War can never be ended,” he wrote; “we need not take any notice.” And writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Monica Sone, who spent much of the war in European or American internment camps, would later point out that political agnosticism has its dangers, too.

Although Zheng is right that there is “the need to construct a common ground for a harmonious world of peace, respect, and prosperity,” I can't quite imagine how someone as disengaged as Chiang Yee could be anyone’s ideal. So is Zheng just playing with hyperbole to address a world increasingly skeptical of academics’ usefulness and relevance? Or is he being serious, and trying desperately to grab anyone’s attention at all? It’s hard to say what the case is -- or which of the two options is “better.”

Darryl Campbell was once called an "elitist young author" by Fox News's John Stossel. He is an assistant editor at The Bygone Bureau, and his writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Millions. You can follow him on Twitter.