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Doctor of Letters
honoris causa

Mr Chancellor, in asking you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa upon Chiang Yee, I present to you a man of many parts: a scientist, soldier, newspaper man, poet, artist, don, public servant. He has had many careers, each more than most men can achieve in one lifetime. From his early days after his training as a teacher of chemistry at Nanking University in the mid-twenties, he was drawn into the turmoil of China, serving for a short period as a soldier. He rose to become eminent in government, acting as District Governor in four districts in Kiangsi and Anhui provinces. In 1933 he left China and arrived (after a break in Paris) at London where he became a teacher of the Chinese language in the famous, if somewhat ambiguously named, School of Oriental and African Studies. This period was no doubt a traumatic one. A new language to master, an old one to teach, exile from his homeland, a new cultural life to learn. Never daunted, Professor Chiang moved into a new area, and became a scholar of the arts. His studies were developed with his translation from London to the United States in 1955 and, in particular, to Columbia University. And, if this were not enough, he began to develop new interests in the highly complex arena of comparative art. The final result of his endeavours has been to clarify all our thinking on the similarities and dissimilarities of Occidental and Oriental disciplines and cultures; and to stand Kipling's "never-the-twain-shall-meet" thesis on its head. He firmly argued that a great work of art is great in all eyes, at all times and in all places. This concept, Mr Chancellor, is particularly appropriate for us in Hong Kong, a centre where Chinese and Western thought can meet at all levels. In this respect, Professor Chiang has greatly assisted our understanding. In his Chinese Calligraphy (which is in effect a wide-ranging treatise on aesthetics as well as a work on beauty in Chinese writing), published in 1938, Professor Chiang points out how in the West there is a close relation between painting and sculpture. In China, however, it is more accurate to speak of "writing as painting". Hence painting is almost a branch of calligraphy. Such is his enthusiasm for calligraphy that he can even see in it the Russian Ballet, the steps of which reminded him of Chinese strokes and styles. "I conclude", he remarks, "that the beauty of Chinese calligraphy is of the same nature as the beauty of painting and dancing".

One of the remarkable features of Professor Chiang's talent is, of course, his "eye", the Chinese "eye", that quality of insight. A few remarkable men have been gifted with 'eye', that is, an ability to see to the heart of a situation. Artists may often portray society more comprehendingly than other mortals. Hence, we move with him from art to social comment; from material to mores. The "eye" which he directs on society is not related to the pretentiousness of the social scientist, but is the glimpse of the essential humanity of a people, its pride and prejudices, warts and all, not always necessarily flattering, as with his lament that one "cannot make a Scot laugh except by reference to incidents of his childhood"; or the barbed comment that "English army officers usually regard foreigners as being deaf". He reminds us of the sensation of being "squeezed", as it were, by the high buildings in Wall Street and there is the comment that he had never "seen so much reverence for ancestors anywhere in China as he saw in Boston". Again, speaking of a well-established British custom, he states, "had I not come to London, I should never have known there was a special time for tea", while in Ireland, the Dublin Horse Show impressed him because all the attendants, "no doubt wishing to set their animals a good example, were well turned out".

The Silent Traveller, as he has called himself, has given us his cameos from a multiplicity of regions and areas. Beginning with the Lake District, he moved to London, Yorkshire, Oxford, Edinburgh, New York, Dublin, Paris, Boston, San Francisco and Japan. The instant recall, Mr Chancellor, is that of Robbie Burns, another very close observer:

"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us..."

Added to these searching reflections on art and life, we discover another formidable list of intellectual accomplishments. Nearly forty years ago he directed the Chinese Section at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and just a little later in wartime London, he was commissioned to design the decor and costumes for the Sadlers Wells Ballet.

In the United States he has been Curator of Chinese Ethnology at the Peabody Museum, and has been Ralph Waldo Emerson Fellow in Poetry at Harvard. His work at Columbia University has been recognised by the title of Emeritus Professor of Chinese, and he has, even before today, been the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates from universities geographically as far apart as Australia and the United States.

Mr Chancellor, for his contribution to our understanding of art, for the delight of his brush, and for his articulately silent comments on men and nations, we ask you to confer upon Chiang Yee the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Peter Bernard Harris, BA, BSC (Econ), PhD., DLitt (PCE), the Public Orator of the University.

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