This week we hear from Library Officer, Will Poulter, on a surprising perspective of the Yorkshire Dales…
One of the joys of working in the library is that sometimes I come across books that strike me, that I may never have known exist. This happened recently when I came across a modest journal by a Chinese writer and painter called Chiang Yee.
Chiang Yee was born in 1903 in a city on the south of the Yangtze, called Jiujiang. He was well educated in China, but decided to leave in 1933 to escape the current political situations, and to study an MSc in Economics at the London School of Economics. He ended up living and working in England for 20 years.
Whilst living in the UK, he roamed across much of the country and documented his times with writings and paintings done in a distinctly Chinese style. He coined the name for himself, Ya-xing-zhe. This name roughly translates as Dumb-Walking-Man, but understandably, his publishers much preferred to use the phrase The Silent Traveller. His book The Silent Traveller in the Yorkshire Dales, is one of a series he wrote whilst living in England in the 1930s and 1940s.
The journal is split in to chapters of Chiang’s wanderings from his base in Parcevall Hall, near Apple-tree-wick in the Yorkshire Dales. In the first chapter, Chiang tells of how he came to be a guest at Parcevall Hall, and of his initial impressions of rural Yorkshire after coming there with preconceptions of the area being an “industrial county full of factory chimneys and smoked-blackened faces and hands”. As he arrives, his preconceptions are proved wrong, as the mist and rolling hills of the Dales are lit by a sunset that renders the clouds a purple that matches the colour of the surrounding heather. This evening sight became the inspiration for both a poem and a landscape painting.
One night, whilst in bed, he wrote a poem to express his joy at seeing the moon over Parcevall Hall. Beautifully and poignantly, it begins:
The clear light of the moon above the old terrace
Falls on the earth cool as water
Moving and walking under the moonlight
Only you and I.
Chiang also painted Parcevall Hall with this vision in mind, in a style more reminiscent of the Ming dynasty paintings of Wang Jian (1598-1677), than the traditional watercolour landscapes we are more accustomed to seeing of Yorkshire. In the painting, he depicts both the purple sky and foliage that awed him when he first arrived, as well as the moon that brought him the joy that inspired the poem.
Personally, I have a love for both the Yorkshire Dales, as well as Oriental painting and poetry, so to see them combined this way is really pleasing, but I was struck when I first saw this painting, and for a particular reason. Almost two years ago I proposed to my (now) wife in the Parcevall Hall gardens. It wasn’t where I intended us to be. We got lost. I was supposed to take her up Ingleborough in the snow, but with the severe weather up there, I may not have got the answer I’d wished for. As it turned out, Parcevall Hall in slight flurry was a stroke of luck, and now the place is special to us.
On Plate V there is a painting called Robin and Roses. Again, this is a subject of the British countryside that must have been painted countless times, yet Chiang Yee depicts this from his own cultural perspective, and paints the robin and rose on silk, as is tradition in China. The subject is also common in Chinese painting, and is known as Huaniao Hua which simply means flower-and-bird painting.
Huaniao Hua covers a wide range of natural subjects, such as flowers, birds, fish, and insects, but most commonly, as the name suggests, the paintings are of flowers and birds. The Chinese emperor, Huizong (1082 – 1135) was a great painter that favoured finely detailed paintings of birds, rather than the vast landscapes that were popular at the time. He enjoyed paintings that depicted birds in a realistic way, but also expected them to transmit the subject’s spirit. This, it seems, was also Chiang Yee’s aim.
The calligraphy that decorates the right-hand side is a poem Chiang wrote after he had an encounter with a robin. Whilst he was leaning against a wall eating his sandwiches, the bird confidently approached him for some bread crumbs. After taking away with a morsel, the robin flew off to perch in a rose tree. The last two lines of the poem translate as
All the roses smile at me in rivalry;
This joy alone can make me forget my sorrow.
Chiang then goes on to tell a story of a Han dynasty Emperor and his beloved: whilst walking in the palace garden, the Emperor’s beloved noticed the rose buds were just opening with a smile. The Emperor joked that they were lovelier than the smile of any beauty, so she hung golden coins on the branches in the hope of buying the smile from the roses. Since then, in China the rose has the nickname of ‘Flower-of-buying-smile’.
In another chapter, Chiang talks of walking to High Force waterfall with a friend. When he saw the waterfall, he felt confirmed of the rumours he’d been told, that it was probably the finest waterfall in England.
His imagination drifted off, and he saw the scene as if it were and old Chinese painting. As he looked out, he told himself that someday he must go up beside the waterfall and sit in meditation on a prominent rock beside the river. He went on to paint this imagined scene in a style reminiscent of old Ch’an (Zen) landscape paintings. The figure of himself is painted with as few lines as possible, and dwarfed by the immense landscape. He blends in to the landscape and becomes part of it, rather than the focus of the painting’s attention.
Much of the poetry in The Silent Traveller is accompanied by Chiang Yee’s original calligraphy, which brings the author’s presence and physicality to the book that you can’t get with just text. In his poem The Returning Shephard Chiang places us in his experience. It doesn’t read as a metaphor for something else or as a simile, as is often the case in Western poetry, but like the poetry of Ch’an monks, it simply sits the reader in the moment.
The Returning Shepherd
HEAVEN and earth are one big camp–
Cows and sheep are scattered over the growing grass.
The shepherd chases the setting sun,
Driving his flock in rows on the homeward road.
The white mist touches my clothes ;
The gentle wind brings a subtle coolness.
I turn to rest under a pine tree,
The fragrance of the wild flowers is wafted towards me intermittently.
There are several copies of The Silent Traveller in the Yorkshire Dales (1948) held within Leeds Libraries, including reference copies in our Local and Family History department.
To learn more about Ch’an and Zen, you can view our Research Guide here.