In December of last year a project started on the Li Yuan-chia Collection by our new intern, Shengyan Wang. He is completing his MA in Museology and is having some hands-on experience with our collections at The Rylands. Initially, Shengyan was tasked with translating from a bundle of letters previously only distinguishable to library staff by their postmarks, stamps and a discoloured post-it label stating “Correspondence in Chinese 1992-1993”.
Library staff had pondered over the content of these letters and in particular what insight they could provide into the life of the artist Li Yuan chia and whether they would reveal more details of his artistic journey before he settled at Banks in Cumbria and created the LYC Museum. Shengyan has certainly enlightened the team and the content of these letters has provided some fascinating information and a rather surprising conundrum; that of how LYC was perceived in his home village by family and acquaintances and the way we have come to know him through his archive: the correspondence, photographs, ephemera and artistic works.
Shengyan discovered through his translation of the letters that Li’s extended family saw him as a successful business man, an educated person, someone who had succeeded in moving West and was, as such, financially secure and so could be relied upon to finance education for his nieces and nephews and help support them. This seemed to us to be quite a contradiction to what was known of Li’s lifestyle in the UK and the assumptions that had been made based upon the documents we came across in the archive. We see a man reliant on, let down and often confused by the UK benefits system. His life at Banks sometimes appeared precarious, with a make do and mend attitude to his home and the Museum often out of necessity rather than choice. However, these letters show that he sent various amounts of money home to his relatives and maintained contact with, and possibly had affection for, the village he came from.
This link is again highlighted in a letter from a Mr Liao, a local government officer, who appeals for funds to help towards the development of Chadong Town, principally to assist in the construction of a road. This link to his home and his extended family is rather poignant as the archive reveals that he never went back to visit. He seemed to have adopted the artistic community of which he was part and also the wider community that shared in activities at the Museum as his surrogate family. One of the most exciting things to be uncovered was that Li supported and financed an Art Room for the village in Chadong. Part of a letter from Yuan-chia’s younger brother, Yuan Chong, reads:
“In terms of cultural life, thanks to your financial aid, the cultural room has been established in our village where people can study at their leisure”.
This appears to have been run on a similar ethos to his LYC Museum in Cumbria. It provided a space for the community to come together, to participate and engage in artistic endeavours.
Through these letters we have come to know a man who put his own financial struggles aside in order to help support his family and the village he came from so that their lives could be improved. They were probably unaware of the difficulties he went through when he moved to Banks and created the LYC Museum. They didn’t see the success he had achieved through his art and poetry; they simply saw a successful business man. Shengyan has been disappointed that these letters haven’t revealed family pride in Li’s artistic achievements; they don’t mention his art or his life in England at all. They show no understanding or curiosity about his life at the Museum. It’s also interesting that Shengyan could find very little information on Li Yuan-chia on the Chinese version of Google, so perhaps after his time at the Rylands and his new found interest in LYC this could be a new avenue for him to pursue.
Karen Jacques & Clare Baker