OXFORDSHIRE BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME

CHIANG Yee (1903–1977)

Artist and Writer

28 Southmoor Road, Oxford

Chiang Yee in Oxford
Chiang Yee, Rita Keene, and Chiang Yee's son
Chien-kuo. Photograph by courtesy of Rita Keene

Chiang Yee was born in the city of Jiujiang on the Yangtze River at the foot of the Lu Mountain. His father Chiang Ho‑an was an artist. Yee had a traditional sheltered upbringing and then went on to university in Nanjing where he read Chemistry. In 1924 he married his cousin Zeng. Their first child Chien‑kuo was born in 1926 and three others were to follow.

He took up a science teaching post at Jinan University in Shanghai but life was severely disrupted by warring factions of nationalists, war lords, and Japanese invaders. He was surprised to be asked to be a provincial magistrate and welcomed the opportunity to address endemic corruption and poverty, but distressed to find that he was powerless to bring about change, he stood down.

He decided that he needed to make a fresh start and encouraged by a friend studying in London, he set sail for Britain in May 1933, although speaking virtually no English. He shared a flat in Hampstead with Shih‑I Hsiung, author of the highly successful play Lady Precious Stream. He made ends meet by teaching Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies in London and later at the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology and was able to devote much of his time to writing and painting. His art books The Chinese Eye (1935) and Chinese Calligraphy (1938), the autobiography A Chinese Childhood (1940), and The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland (1937) were published to rave reviews. There was a great reawakening of interest in China in the thirties and Chiang Yee soon became a well-known and sought-after figure in literary and cultural circles.

28 Southmoor Road

When the Blitz started in September 1940, bombed out of his flat in London he decided to seek refuge in Oxford. He went along Southmoor Road, knocking at doors on the chance of a temporary haven. At number 28 a very kind couple Henry and Violet Keene took him in. His lodgings proved so congenial that the house remained his home base until 1955. He had two rooms and read, wrote and painted in his study facing the street. He was welcomed into the family, sometimes sharing meals and fishing trips. Three-year-old Rita Keene thought of him as an uncle.

Here he worked on The Silent Traveller in Oxford (1944), a wonderful legacy of his Oxford years in prose and water colour, in which he muses on the beauty of the city and observes the mores of the inhabitants with a fresh Chinese eye and gentle irony. Altogether he produced thirteen books in the series covering mainly British and American cities or locations such as the Yorkshire Dales.

His friend Hsiung had also moved to Oxford and his home, Iffley Turn House, became a cultural meeting place for Chinese scholars and artists.

The Silent Traveller in Oxford

In 1946, encouraged by Methuen, he made the first of several trips to New York and Boston, prospecting for the Silent Traveller series. This was the prelude to his accepting an appointment as Professor of Chinese at Columbia University and permanent residence in the USA from 1955.

In 1975 he was able to visit China again. Impressed by the huge transformation of the country, he wrote China Revisited.

In failing health, he made a second visit in 1977 and died there on 17 October. The great traveller was buried where he had been born at the foot of Lu Mountain, next to his wife Zeng Yun.

Sources:

  • Chiang Yee, The Silent Traveller from the East, a cultural biography, by Da Zheng (Rutgers 2010)
  • The Silent Traveller in Oxford by Chiang Yee (Methuen 1944, now published by Signal Books, Cowley)

 

The plaque was unveiled at 28 Southmoor Road, Oxford on Saturday 29 June 2019 by Professor Da Zheng and Mrs Rita Keene Lester who both spoke at the ceremony. Among those attending were Cllr Altaf Khan, Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford; descendants of Chiang Yee and of Henry and Violet Keene; and local residents. A symposium exploring Chiang Yee’s life and work had been held earlier in the day at the Ashmolean Museum.

Speech made by Professor Da Zheng

Pictures taken at the ceremony:

Oxford Mail, 2 July 2019:
Jericho house where Chinese author Chiang Yee given refuge gets blue plaque

That's China:
Chinese Artist Chiang Yee Honored with Blue Plaque in Oxford

Picture awaited

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

CHIANG YEE
蔣彝
1903–1977

Artist and Writer
‘The Silent Traveller’
Lodged here with the
Keene family
1940–1955

Oxford Civic Society

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

 

Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com