Old Version

Searching for Panda Man

A best-selling author in the UK and US, Chiang Yee remains virtually unknown in his native China. But a new book seeks to position the artist and scholar to take his rightful place as one of modern China’s earliest ‘East meets West’ cultural ambassadors

By Qiu Guangyu Updated May.1

Chiang Yee in his apartment in New York, 1960s (Photo: Courtesy of Zheng Da)

Most everyone in China has had a taste of Chiang Yee’s work.  

Answering an ad for a contest ran by the Coca-Cola Company in the early 1930s, Chiang finessed the unappetizing translation of the drink’s original Chinese name, ke ke ken la (“keke gnaws on wax”), to the thirst-quenching ke kou ke le (“palatable and pleasurable”) we know today.  

Chiang, in the UK at the time, was paid six pounds for creating one of the most uttered brand names of the 20th century.  

This is merely a footnote in his remarkable legacy. Once a public servant in China, Chiang went on to become an artist, author and professor in Britain and the US. He garnered fame in the English-speaking world for his Silent Traveller series, which provided some of the first popular examples of Eastern outsider travel writing on cities from London to San Francisco.  

Despite his achievements, Chiang remains largely unknown in China. This can be attributed to Chiang primarily writing in English during his 40 years abroad.  

But this may change soon with the Chinese translation of Chiang Yee and his Circle: Chinese Artistic and Intellectual Life in Britain 1930-1950. Published in November 2023, the book explores the vibrant lives and important work of Chinese artists and authors living in Britain during two tumultuous decades for the West and China.  

First released in English in April 2022, the latest version is co-edited by Chiang’s biographer Zheng Da, a professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, US.  

“It is the belief of the editors of the book that Chiang’s writings will soon become just as popular in China as they have been in other parts of the world, as long as his innate kindness and the universal values of peace and friendship he propagated can be understood everywhere,” the book’s British coeditor Paul Bevan told NewsChina.  

Bevan, a UK-based scholar of Chinese literature, said he was first drawn to Chiang’s story because the author had lived close to his childhood home in Hampstead, northwest London. 
Though devastated in the German Luftwaffe bombing campaigns of WWII, the area retains some of its 1930s charm. At the time, Hampstead was a haven for artists and writers – many of whom hailed from China. Soon after arriving, Chiang rubbed elbows with London-based Chinese literati like authors Shi-I Hsiung and Xiao Qian, historian Cui Ji and translator Yang Hsien-yi. They created an intellectual circle that supported one another’s work – and was crucial to Chiang’s early career.  

Departures and Arrivals 
Born in 1903 to an intellectual family in Jiujiang, Central China’s Jiangxi Province, he reluctantly married Zhen Yun, a woman he had been arranged to marry since childhood. They went on to have three children.  

Chiang served as a county magistrate in several cities in China. But his government career came to an abrupt end after he blocked a Texaco land deal that involved shortchanging landowners and bribing officials. Disillusioned by the corruption in politics at the time and with few prospects for work, Chiang left China in 1933 with the intention to study government administration at the London School of Economics.  

He would not see his wife and children again for 40 years.  

Chiang arrived in the British capital knowing very little English. To practice, he would go to a nearby park to strike up conversations with locals.  

His career in art and literature was initially fostered by author Shi-I Hsiung. For his 1934 English adaptation of the Peking opera Wang Baochuan, which he titled Lady Precious Stream, Hsiung asked Chiang for 12 illustrations. The play was eventually staged in London to widespread acclaim.  

But Chiang’s break came when the Chinese embassy selected him to participate in an international exhibition of tree paintings held by Men of the Trees, an arborist society in London. He submitted three paintings. One of them, “Bamboo of Huangchow,” appeared in the London Evening Standard for the exhibition’s opening day.  

What fascinates about Chiang’s story is how timing factored into his career. He arrived in the UK during a resurgence of interest in China. Exhibitions featuring Chinese art were frequently held in London’s galleries.  

According to biographer Zheng Da, Chinese art scholars were rare in the West, something that Chiang was well aware of. “His training in art and Chinese upbringing were his niche for success,” Zheng wrote in Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East.  

Book publishers quickly recognized the growing market, and Chiang was well positioned to get their attention. Once again, Hsiung’s connections proved vital. He introduced Chiang to J. Alan White, director of publisher Methuen & Company in London, to discuss a possible book on Chinese art. Though excited by the opportunity, Chiang was concerned that his English was inadequate.  

Fortunately, two people would come to his aid. One was Reginald Johnston, a British diplomat who once served as the tutor to Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). By the time they met, Johnston was chairman of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of London, and recruited Chiang as his doctoral student in Chinese Buddhism. 

The other was Innes Jackson, then a recent graduate of Oxford University. Jackson, who had a keen interest in Chinese culture and history, attended Chiang’s elementary classical Chinese class at what is now the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Their shared interest sparked a lifelong friendship of collaboration, such as Jackson helping with translations and edits for Chiang’s books.  

Chiang’s unique perspective on art in his first book, The Chinese Eye: An Interpretation of Chinese Painting (1934), set it apart from others on the subject in the Anglophone world.  

In the biography Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East, Zheng Da described the popularity of The Chinese Eye as “immense in the English-speaking world.” The book would sell out as many US soldiers arriving in Britain during WWII bought it as a Christmas gift for their families, Zheng said.  

In 1937, Chiang published the first installment of his Silent Traveller series, A Chinese Artist in Lakeland. The book included essays and paintings depicting Chiang’s vacations in the Lake District. It won praise in British newspapers and was a consistent seller, reprinted nine times over the years.  

Art was an important part of the series’ appeal. The late Chinese American geographer and writer Yi-Fu Tuan praised the “delicate watercolors” in Chiang’s Silent Traveller books that were “so contrary to the thick paint that he liked to slap on the canvas as a young artist.”  

The success spurred Chiang to continue his focus on travelogues for English readers, accompanied with his own illustrations.  

He mused on the snowy streets of Oxford, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the shrines of Japan. With each visit, he explored rich cultural subjects through his personal experience, providing readers with novel yet deep insight into the world and their place in it.  

In Black and White 
Chiang’s personal journey was marked by setbacks and inner turmoil largely unknown to those around him. In the 1920s and early 1930s, as he became more aware of the crisis that China faced, Chiang had resolved to study science and contribute to the country’s advancement through science and technology.  

Despite excelling in literature and calligraphy from a young age, he made the difficult decision to pursue a degree in chemistry at Southeast China University.  

After graduation, Chiang was inspired by the political climate of the late 1920s and began his short-lived government career. Fortunately, he received financial support from his elder brother Chiang Ji to study abroad, a decision that would change his life forever.  

But the brothers would never see each other again. Chiang Ji died of a heart attack in 1938, which left his brother devastated. As China struggled against the Japanese invasion and decades-long occupation, Chiang was unable to return.  

Adding to his grief, his closest friend in Britain, Reginald Johnston, passed away the same year, leaving him feeling lonely and helpless in a foreign land.  

To find solace, Chiang threw himself into his work of painting animals and natural scenes. He confided in friends that, while engrossed in his creative pursuits, he found respite from most of his worries. “Perhaps my work is the only form of happiness I have,” Chiang wrote in his book The Silent Traveller in London.  

Around this time, a 10-month-old panda cub from China named Ming had arrived at London Zoo, captivating the city’s attention. Drawn by the clumsy yet endearing nature of pandas, Chiang found new inspiration for his work.  

As a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, Chiang was granted special permission to spend an evening observing the panda up close and study its behavior. He drew over 100 sketches before committing his ideas to inkwash paintings. In August 1939, Yee published his first children’s book, Chin-pao and the Giant Pandas, featuring his vivid and lifelike illustrations of pandas in various poses, all of which reflected his careful observations.  

Throughout his life, Chiang painted hundreds of panda-themed works, establishing himself as the first Chinese painter to have dedicated such attention to the animal, Zheng wrote in Chiang’s biography. His focus earned him the nickname “the panda man,” first coined by a London art critic.  

Writing also became a refuge where he could delve into his native culture and new surroundings. The genuine curiosity and innocent charm in his prose resonated with countless readers. Through his creative pursuits, Chiang found a path to navigate the solitude and anguish caused by the death of his loved ones, all while sharing the beauty of his life with others.  

In 1955, Chiang left the UK for the US, starting yet another phase of his career.  

An illustration by Chiang Yee featuring a giant panda ambling among pigeons for his San Francisco travelogue published in 1964 (Photo: Courtesy of Zheng Da)

The Castle in the Summer Haze, Chiang Yee, 1948, depicts Edinburgh Castle (Photo: V&A Museum, London)

Return Home 
Wearing his black Chinese-style gown, Chiang stood out among the other speakers at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater as he delivered his speech for academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa on June 11, 1956.  

Themed “The Interdependence of All Cultures,” Chiang’s speech emphasized the importance of mutual understanding among peoples, highlighting the need for global harmony.  

Chiang was the second Asian to deliver a speech for the prestigious society, following the renowned Bengali philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore. This recognition from the American academic community reflects the significant impact of Chiang’s work. He was subsequently appointed as Harvard’s Emerson Fellow in Poetry.  

Chiang went on to teach classes on Chinese culture at Columbia University in New York, all the while continuing to write his Silent Traveller series.  

Published in 1964, his San Francisco travelogue features a serene painting of a panda ambling leisurely among dozens of pigeons against a colorful backdrop of flowers, pedestrians and tall office buildings. He called it “An Oriental in Union Square,” using it as a metaphor for his own identity.  

Zheng Da notes in the book that no matter how Chiang’s status changed, he was still a “panda man” – an observer in a foreign land.  

As diplomatic ties between the US and China improved in the 1970s, Chiang saw a chance to return to China. In April 1975, after 40 years abroad, Chiang reunited with his wife Zeng Yun and his children in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. There he met his grandchildren for the first time.  

He had mixed emotions about the return: “All the time I sat there looking at everyone, I had acute pain inside me, yet I could not show it in my face, for this reunion of us all was a miracle such as I had never dreamed of,” Chiang wrote in his book China Revisited.  

During his two-month visit in China, Chiang visited over 20 cities. Upon his return to the US, he documented his experiences and wanted to make his life story known to the world. According to Zheng Da, he became more outspoken and unrestrained, a significant change in Chiang’s demeanor.  

For the first time, he openly discussed his political past in China and his disappointment with Chiang Kaishek, the head of the Nationalist government (1928-49). He also expressed his admiration for Mao Zedong, the founding chairman of the People’s Republic of China. “This dramatic transformation revealed him as a new being that was cloaked patiently and quietly in disguise over the previous four decades,” Zheng wrote.  

Chiang’s love for his homeland remained unwavering until his passing. In August 1977, he made his second visit to China, which was filled with traveling to historic sites, visiting with relatives and friends, and going to Peking Opera performances. However, the demanding schedule triggered a relapse of colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with only two years earlier. 
Intending to return to the US to continue teaching at Columbia University, Chiang had ended his travels with a final journey home. He ultimately passed away in Beijing in late October 1977. Chiang was 74.  

Interestingly, he shared a similar destiny with his old friend Shi-I Hsiung, who also passed away in Beijing during his own return to China years later.  

In a eulogy delivered during the memorial service held at Columbia University, William Theodore de Bary, the school’s executive vice president, described Chiang as “the embodiment of the Chinese scholar, poet and painter who made China live in New York and grafted something of himself onto our common life at the university.”  

De Bary continued: “Our sorrow is lightened by the thoughts that our departed colleague has only departed in the way the ‘silent traveler’ often did, and that he will still be going and coming in our lives.”  

Chiang was laid to rest at the foot of Mount Lushan in his hometown of Jiujiang, alongside his brother, Chiang Ji, and his wife, Zeng Yun. Through the unique perspectives in his work, Chiang embodies the cultural openness and shared curiosity that help to bring the world closer together. 

Chiang Yee paints a giant panda in his apartment (Photo: Courtesy of Zheng Da)