The Chinese Intellectual Memorialized in Oxford9 min read

Chiang Yee and England’s wartime circle of Chinese literati – Paul French

Anyone who has lived in or visited the UK will likely be familiar with the Blue Plaque scheme: permanent signs on buildings across the country, commemorating the link between that location and a culturally significant person or event. To qualify for a Blue Plaque, nominees must be regarded as eminent within their field; that is, their achievements have made an exceptional impact or deserve national recognition. Nobody is quite sure how many Blue Plaques there are – it’s rather a hotchpotch system administered locally – although London alone has about 900.

Until recently, Britain only had two Blue Plaques commemorating the lives of Chinese people: one to the writer Lao She, and another to Dr Sun Yatsen, “Father of Modern China.” Lao She is remembered in London’s Bayswater, where he lived in the 1920s with the eccentric Orientalist Clement Egerton. They working together on the English translation of the Jing Ping Mei (published as The Golden Lotus in 1939), which Egerton dedicated to his good friend “Colin Shu” – the name by which Lao She was known in London. Dr Sun’s plaque is slightly harder to find, in the Hertfordshire village of Cottered (pop: 634) on the wall of the former home of James Cantile, who had taught Sun medicine in Hong Kong. When Sun was kidnapped by the Imperial Chinese Secret Police in London in 1896, Cantile agitated for his release, and after his release Sun recuperated from his ordeal in the quiet environs of Cottered.

Both are worthy of Blue Plaques, but, as English Heritage (the charity that manages many historic monuments, buildings and places) wondered about the lack of diversity in the Blue Plaque scheme several years ago, why so few? “Where are the plaques for Black and Asian people?” It takes a while for submissions to get through the Blue Plaque vetting process from an initial application, requiring support from knowledgeable academics and experts as well as permission from the property owner to install the plaque. These hoops, however, have been successfully jumped through in the most recent commemoration of a Chinese in Britain. On Saturday June 29, 2019, Britain’s third plaque to a Chinese person – the writer and artist Chiang Yee (蒋彝) – was unveiled in the university town of Oxford.

Chiang Yee came to Britain in 1933 and stayed for the next eighteen years, living for most of his sojourn in northern Oxford. During the 1940s, Chiang Yee became the prolific author of the Silent Traveller series of books, much loved for their Chinese perspective on Britain’s landscapes and people. An audience of around a hundred academics, Sinologists, art lovers, curious locals and some descendants of Chiang Yee who still live in the UK gathered at the Ashmolean Museum in central Oxford for a symposium to celebrate his life and work and commemorate his Oxford years.

Popular perceptions of Chinese people in the UK at the time were commonly based on caricatured stereotypes in novels and films”

Chiang Yee was born into a wealthy family in Jiangxi province, central China, in 1903. His father was a successful portrait artist who encouraged Chiang’s early interest in painting and calligraphy. Life in early-20th century China was characterised by upheaval, as the country was torn apart by struggles for political power following the end of imperial rule in 1911. In the midst of this turmoil, calls for social change engendered a powerful movement to reinvigorate Chinese culture and establish a modern identity for China. Following the end of World War I, many Chinese artists and intellectuals came to study in Europe and America. They learnt about politics, law, science and literature from a western perspective in order to bring new ideas back to China. Most of those who studied abroad eventually returned to live in China but some, including Chiang Yee, stayed to make a life for themselves for several decades before going home.

When Chiang Yee arrived in Britain in 1933 there was already a small but significant Chinese community in the UK, concentrated in Liverpool and London, established in the late 19th century. In 1931 the UK census recorded 1934 Chinese living in England and Wales. Many worked as sailors on merchant shipping routes, whilst others were employed in laundries, shops and restaurants. Popular perceptions of Chinese people in the UK at the time were commonly based on sensationalist press stories and caricatured stereotypes in novels and films. The Chinese were invariably portrayed as sinister characters who gambled, smoked opium and inveigled white women into prostitution, an image was most notoriously embodied by Sax Rohmer’s villainous novel series character Dr Fu Manchu.

Chiang Yee lived for fifteen years at 28 Southmoor Road, Oxford, after his London home was destroyed in the Blitz. His first major publication, on Chinese painting, marked the beginning of a period in which Chinese intellectuals began to directly communicate information and ideas about their culture to western audiences. Chiang Yee’s books and lectures on Chinese art and culture signal the beginning of a new era in which Chinese people began to represent their own culture themselves. The Silent Traveller books, with their alternative presentation of Britain, were an innovative attempt to synthesize two diverse cultures at a time when the Orientalist model persisted as a dominant influence in the collective British consciousness.

Chiang Yee became established on London’s art and literary scene as a lecturer and commentator, spending a great deal of time commuting between London and Oxford. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Chiang Yee was regularly invited to contribute to BBC radio programmes to discuss Chinese art, poetry and literature. He also published a series of children’s books and guides to Chinese calligraphy, and produced hundreds of sketches and paintings of London Zoo’s first pandas from China (Song and Tang with their baby Ming) that arrived at Regent’s Park in 1938.

Chiang Yee was also a key member of a small group of Chinese artists, writers and intellectuals living in London just before, during and after World War II. Compared to the early Chinese community in East London’s Limehouse and the later, post-war Chinatown of Gerrard Street in the West End, this group has been too often forgotten and too little studied. According to Paul Bevan of the Ashmolean Museum, this group of Chinese literati mostly lived in the Hampstead and Belsize Park districts of northwest London in the 1930s. At that time the area was a mixed community of artists, writers and musicians, a large number of whom had recently fled from Nazi persecution in Europe.

Chiang’s group comprised an important social and intellectual network of Chinese writers and artists in London before the war”

For a time, Chiang Yee shared a flat in a house on London’s Upper Park Road with his friend Xiong Shiyi (熊式一), the author of the popular West End play Lady Precious Stream, and Xiong’s wife Dymia, the first Chinese woman in Britain to write her own autobiography. Their circle of friends included the literary translator Yang Xianyi (楊憲益), who studied at Merton College, Oxford, but regularly visited London, as well as Xiao Qian (蕭乾) the essayist, translator and newspaper reporter. Also living on Upper Park Road were the poets Wang Lixi (王禮錫) and his wife Lu Jingqing (陸晶清). With their partners, children and friends, this group comprised an important social and intellectual network of Chinese writers and artists in London before the war.

It was the war that effectively ended the community. Japan’s attack on China meant that some of the group returned home to China. Others lent support to the war effort. Chiang Yee worked closely with Xiao Qian (who had returned to China for a while to journey up the Burma Road from Yangon to Kunming on a reporting trip) and George Kung-chao “KC” Yeh  (葉公超), who ran China’s wartime Ministry of Information Office in Bentinck Street, Marylebone. Together they, and others, worked to raise awareness of China’s plight in the UK. Xiong Shiyi, Dymia and their children moved from London to Oxford when the war started. Chiang Yee stayed in London until that fateful night his house was bombed and he was rendered homeless. In Oxford the Keene family offered to rent him their downstairs front room.

64 years after Chiang Yee packed his bags and moved on from Oxford to a teaching job in the United States, a crowd including Oxford’s mayor gathered outside 28 Southmoor Road to unveil the Blue Plaque. Unveiling the plaque itself was Rita Keene Lester, a girl aged three when Chiang Yee first came to lodge at Southmoor Road with the Keene family. Rita recalled her memories of “Uncle Chiang” who, during the difficult years of World War II, would go fishing on the Cherwell River, come home with a carp and cook it Chinese-style, much to the delight of a family living on minimal wartime rations.

Britain now has three Blue Plaques commemorating the Chinese intellectual presence in England. The continuing diversification of the Blue Plaque scheme is of crucial importance in recognising the rich cultural mix of Britain’s heritage, how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world, and the centrality of migration in shaping who we are today. ∎

Plaque photos: Oxfordshire Blue Plaque Board.