Retired UBC Asian Studies Professor, Florence Yeh Chia-ying, now aged ninety-six and based in China, is the subject of a brand-new feature documentary which opened recently in Shanghai, and premiered nationwide on October 16.
The film was previously nominated for the official selection of the Golden Goblet Awards at the 23rd Shanghai International Film Festival.
Entitled “Like the Dyer’s Hands” in English (a quote from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets), and with the original Chinese title translating as “the moon reflecting in the water as it is scooped up by hands,” the documentary focuses on her lifelong dedication to Chinese traditional literature and poetry spanning almost a centenary, as well as her great contribution and unyielding spirit regardless of wars, social turmoil and family tragedy.
According to director Chen Chuanxing, Professor Yeh’s idyllic life is immersed in the beauty of ancient Chinese poetry.
“Heaven uses a hundred misfortunes to fashion one poet, I think you must have experienced such tribulations before you can understand the poems thoroughly,” Professor Yeh says in the film.
According to her, the qualities of the genre enable people to be resilient and persevere through times of adversity.
“The brightness in our hearts [awakened by those poems] must be passed down. It is like a pond of lotuses, that even if all the petals wither, there remains the seeds to be preserved,” she said.
A graduate of the Department of Chinese Literature of Fu Jen Catholic University in Hong Kong in 1945, Professor Yeh worked as an educator, traditional Chinese literature researcher and writer. During the 1960s, she taught traditional Chinese poetry in English at Harvard University and Michigan State University, before settling in Vancouver in 1969. However, she was drawn to her home country and asked for permission to teach in China in the 1970s, moving there in her later years. In 2018, she set up the Caleb Ling Fund at Nankai University in Tianjin to support the research of Chinese cultural heritage.
Many of our current and retired faculty remember her fondly, with Dr. Alison Bailey taking some of her courses during her years as an MA and others recalling sitting in on her classes in the 1970s and 1980s. Other notable students include Grace Fong (who completed her Ph.D with UBC Asian Studies and is currently a professor of Chinese Poetry at McGill University) and UBC Asian Studies Professor Emeritus Jerry Schmidt.
The Asian Library interviewed her in Mandarin in 2009, which you can find here in the UBC Open Collections. The Asian Library also has plenty of books written by her or about her!
(Many thanks to Phoebe Chow at the UBC Asian Library and to all who have contributed memories of Professor Yeh for this story)