Art is an international language, which, unlike a spoken language, can be understood by all peoples. The Second World War has made everything chaotic and difficult, but I think it has at the same time brought all of us peace-loving peoples closer together, and it is natural that we should try to understand each other better than before. What better way could there be than through the international language of art?
Chiang Yee’s The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh was first published in 1948, fifteen years after the author left his native China for Britain, where he would remain until emigrating to the States in 1955. Chiang toured several British cities and recorded his experiences, and subsequently wrote about his journeys in America. These works cemented his reputation as a travel writer, an accomplished artist, and an acute observer of the nuances of human life. It’s easy to understand the reasons for Chiang’s popularity: he offers a refreshingly uncynical perspective.
Although The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh presents, as you might expect, the account of Chiang’s stay in the Scottish Capital, Chiang’s native China intrudes upon his travelogue in the form of references to Chinese folktales, architecture, and historical figures. Perhaps the best way to understand one’s own culture is to explore another, as Chiang himself suggests: ‘How true it is that one can see others more clearly than oneself!’
This does not mean that Chiang is uninterested in his Scottish surroundings; instead, these references serve to expose similarities between the two nations. Chiang discovers several parallels between Scottish and Chinese culture (for example, the use of similar imagery in the poetry of Robert Burns and ancient Chinese love-songs). These connections lead towards the message which underlies Chiang’s travelogue: the universal power of art. To find this message in any piece of travel writing would be slightly disconcerting, but the surprised is doubled when this view is expressed in Chiang’s deceptively simplistic prose. By arguing that great artistic accomplishments will transcend the barrier of nationality, Chiang offers a pertinent message to post-war Britain. I would argue that Chiang’s wishful proposition is close to being fulfilled today, as modern technology further erodes national boundaries. The translation of the ostensibly British Harry Potter series into at least 67 additional languages surely represents the realisation of Chiang’s idealistic vision.
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