In 1975, Chiang Yee took a trip to China from April 15 to June 15. It had been forty-two years since he left China in 1933. Upon his return to New York, Chiang gave public speeches, showed slides at gatherings, and discussed the unprecedented changes he had witnessed in China. Simultaneously, he quickly recorded his thoughts and experiences, which came out in a book entitled China Revisited, posthumously published in 1977. On the dust jacket is his Chinese painting of Mao Zedong, sitting on top of the mountains and appreciating the surrounding beautiful landscape of the country. This China visit seemed to have been a transforming experience; Chiang appeared like an entirely different person after the trip. His close friend and colleague at Columbia exclaimed: "Chiang Yee has become a revolutionary."
Indeed, Chiang Yee's viewpoints and his description of the experience in China in the book China Revisited are unusually candid and emotional compared to his earlier works. Now that thirty years have passed since the publication of the book, it is apparent that some of his views and understanding of China were not accurate for epistemological and historical reasons. Still those drastic changes after his visit prompt us to ask these questions: Had he really been converted to communism after the trip? How should we explain those sudden changes in him? What had been the cause of those changes, and what are the conclusions we may draw from that? All these questions are important because the answers may help us understand not merely the changes in Chiang himself only, but also some fundamental issues related to Chinese diasporas in general concerning their indissoluble bond to the motherland.
Chiang Yee was born in 1903 in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province. In 1911, the Manchuria emperor was dethroned, and the feudal system was replaced with a new republic. Chiang went to college in Nanjing and graduated in 1926 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. He aspired to help bring prosperity to China with an extensive training in science. Unfortunately, the country, under the Nationalist government, was plagued with civil wars, famines, corruption, crimes, and poverty. Influenced by his older brother, who served in the Nationalist government, Chiang joined the Northern Expedition, hoping to defeat warlords and unite the country. Later, he served as county magistrate for three years in three different counties, including his hometown, Jiujiang. He attempted to bring about reforms and improve the lives of the people. He promoted education, effected tax reform, and curbed bribery and other crimes. His lofty ideals, however, collided with the interests of some local officials. He opted to resign from office after the new provincial governor took the office. Chiang went to England to study foreign government at the University of London for a year, intending to bring about social reforms in China in the future. Unexpectedly, for various reasons, including the subsequent Japanese invasion of China, the Second World War, and the political situation in China, he stayed abroad, first in England and then in America as faculty at Columbia University,
During his sojourn overseas, Chiang became known for his Silent Traveller series, which consisted of a dozen volumes that cover various cities and countries in Europe and Asia. These volumes, decorated with illustrations, Chinese calligraphy, and poems, appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds as original, refreshing, and entertaining. On various occasions, Chiang has explained that he wrote these volumes in order to underline the commonalities among people between the East and West. He writes about natural landscape and sociocultural practices in the West, and he loves to "defamiliarise the world" around him and transform a common scene--such as a waterfall or snow scene in the West into an unfamiliar sight in the East or an ancient Chinese painting. (1) For members of diaspora like Chiang, writing is more than a mere inscribing practice: it is a medium with which the writer searches for home and constructs an imaginary home. The act of defamiliarization here is an important part of the home-construction efforts, allowing the diaspora to come to terms with displacement and homelessness. (2)
Chiang's return to his original homeland in 1975 disrupted and complicated the home-construction process by introducing these two new elements: disorientation and re-orientation. When Chiang returned to China, he was confronted with a motherland entirely different--yet with some degree of strange familiarity--from what had been registered in his memory. He describes his bewilderment at the site of his childhood home in Jiujiang near the end of China Revisited.
Every inch reminded me of something, yet everything looked so different from what I had known before. I insisted on being taken to where my old home had been, but there was no trace of it, or of my old official residence, for both had been destroyed by the Japanese invaders in 1938. I gazed at the stones on the road and the walls of the new houses, and that my past had gone forever. "How could this be?" I asked myself, but no answer came. (3) Like Rip Van Winkle in Washington Irving's story, Chiang is totally disoriented. Such an incredible transformation that has taken place in his hometown within such a short time period is too baffling: a formerly small town where a small textile mill was the only industry in the early 1930s has now metamorphosed into "a sort of cosmopolitan place" with "eighteen good-sized factories producing tools, engineering tools, machine parts, as well as other light industries making products like fertilizers, matches, and toothpaste." (4) The memory of the old China which he has tenderly preserved and harbored as the guiding map and lens for this search fails to match and measure the reality.
The stage of re-orientation began subsequently in the United States when he started to re-evaluate the home-returning experience and the meaning of home. The two layers--a present China versus the old one--collided and collaborated in his presentations and writing of the book China Revisited. It was re-orientation that corrected the vertigo of the disorientation and enabled Chiang to reassess the facts he had just witnessed during the trip, adjust the lens of the present and the past, and set his mind to "face the present and future." (5) Needless to say, the socio-political situation played a critical role here. The improved Sino-U.S. diplomatic relationship and less restrained political atmosphere in the post-McCarthy era allowed Chiang to voice his opinions more openly and freely.
China Revisited, the last travel book he published, appears somewhat like just another volume in his Silent Traveller series. However, there are some fundamental differences. First of all, this book does not have Chiang's signature phrase, "The Silent Traveller," in the title, such as The Silent Traveller in Boston or The Silent Traveller in San Francisco. Second, this is a book about his home country while all other Silent Traveller books deal with cities and countries overseas. Third, when writing Silent Traveller books, he always attempts to underline the commonalities among all cultures, especially between the East and the West...