Book Review: The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland by Chiang Yee

Author: Chiang Yee
TitleThe Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland
Publication Info: London, Country Life; New York, Transatlantic Arts [1949] (first published in 1937)
Other Books Read By Same Author: The Silent Traveller in London, The Silent Traveller in San Francisco, The Silent Traveller in Boston, and The Silent Traveller in Dublin.

Long ago I discovered the travel books of Chiang Yee, a Chinese-born writer who left China in the 1930s and over the next several decades published his observations of visits to various places in Europe and the Americas.  Unlike the typical travel writer who is an adventurous go-getter, Chiang quietly observes and reflects in his writing, poetry, paintings, and calligraphy (hence, “Silent Traveller”).  This is the first of his travel narratives based on a two-week visit to the English Lake District in 1936.  He’s more opinionated here than I recall in other books, comparing the Lake District scenery unfavorably to China. His writing style hasn’t developed yet either, as this reads more like a daily journal than a composed travel narrative.  But there are flashes of humor and warmth that are Chiang’s trademarks, as well as disconcerting glimpses of the political situation in Europe and Asia at that time that would explode into the Second World War.
Favorite Passages:

“…I am a man of curious temperament who prefers on most occasions to be dumb.  When I was obliged to talk I found my tongue grow curling and painful.  None of my friends realised my predicament, for I made efforts to talk easily in case they would drop their friendship with me altogether.  It is a selfish trait in my character which I try to master.  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.  At such times there is no room in my mind for the external trimmings of history or romance.”

“My friend was surprised and a little shocked to see so many pieces of land enclosed and marked ‘Private,” protesting that in China we should never find the public forbidden a free employment of scenery.  I acquiesced, and admitted that it seemed money could buy even Nature!”

“We reached the landing-stage at Bowness only to find a long queue of people waiting for the boat; it was at least a quarter of an hour before our turn came.  In the meanwhile I watched these holiday-makers with great interest, hurrying, scurrying, everyone in haste and eagerness.  I remind myself that never could such a scene be found in China; in the busy West it seems that even merry-making has to be done in haste nowadays!”

Rating: ***

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