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Chasing the Modern by Tony S Hsu

April 2, 2018

The Twentieth Century Life of Poet Xu Zhimo


In 1915 the brilliant, privileged, 18-year-old Xu, was bought home to Xiashi by his family, from university in Beijing, and pushed into an arranged marriage with 15-year-old Youyi who he had never met. He got her pregnant but it was no love match and he soon took off without her on a world tour. Some years later, when he had made it to Cambridge, and fallen in love with another woman Lin Huyin, the family arranged for Youyi to leave her son in China and join him. Xu got her pregnant again but otherwise rejected her, and started leading a double life with Lin. Eventually he persuaded Youyi to grant him China’s first modern divorce; previously, high status men in Xu’s position would stay married, and take a concubine or two. The second child died young and Youyi eventually settled in Germany with her son.

Meanwhile the Lin Huyin affair ended with her also in an arranged marriage with someone else, and Xu returned to China, found fame as a poet and public intellectual, and began a scandalous affair with a glamorous married socialite, Lu Xioman.  Following another trip to England and the famous final goodbye (click here), he dragged Youyi back to China to persuade his sceptical family that she not only genuinely consented to the divorce, but was also agreeable to his second marriage to Xioman. Youyi complied, but the second marriage also rapidly disintegrated. Xioman partied all night, wasted their money, took a new lover and became addicted to opium.

Xu took the best way out, albeit involuntarily; die young in a plane crash! In the immediate aftermath his women reacted as expected. Xioman refused to believe the news, and Lin Huyin grieved, leaving the faithful Youyi to rescue his remains and sort out the funeral.

In the medium term his reputation faded under greater events; Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the Long March, X’ian incident, and eventual Communist revolution.  His papers disappeared, Red Guards desecrated his tomb, and for 30 years he was written out of Chinese history. But in the 1980s under Deng Xioping’s reforms, his tomb was repaired, his diaries returned, and his reputation restored. His subsequent rise in popularity, driven largely by a couple of mass market TV soap operas based on his love life, has reached the point that no Chinese visitor to the UK can afford to miss the memorial stone on the banks of the Cam (click here).

Tony Hsu is the poet’s grandson by Youyi. This shows. Not just in the way his grandmother comes out of the story – although she was clearly a remarkable woman, one of the first in her family to avoid the dreadful foot binding – but in the occasional clunky platitude: “If evolution tells us anything it is that [our ancestors] intelligence and experience are lodged in our DNA”.

This is the only biography currently available for the non-specialist English reader. Short and padded out with pictures and biographical sketches of Xu’s famous friends, Liang Quichao, Bertrand Russell, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and Rabindranath Tagore, it also contains translations of sixteen poems. Enough for me.

Jim Thornton

Click here for “Leaving Cambridge Again”, and here for the Osmanthus poem.  Here’s another written six months before he died.

On The Bus

There are all ages and all trades on this bus:
Bearded men, unweaned babies, teenage boys, merchants and soldiers.
There are all the poses too: leaning, lying down,
Eyes open or closed, or staring out the window at darkness.

The wheels grind out refrains on the steel tracks;
No stars in the sky, not a lamp along the road,
Only the dim lights on the bus reveal the passengers-
Faces young and old, all fatigued.

Suddenly from the darkest corner comes
A singing, sweet and clear; like a mountain spring, a bird at dawn,
Or the sky lighting up over the vast desert,
Golden rays spreading to distant ravines.

She is a little child, her voice released in joy.
On this shadowed journey, at this dim hour,
Like a swollen mountain spring or a morning bird in ecstasy,
She sings until the bus is filled with wondrous melody.

One by one the passengers fall under its spell;
By and by their faces glow with delight.
Merchants, officers, the old and the young alike-
Even the sucking baby opens its eyes.

She sings and sings until the journey is brightened,
Until the fair moon and the stars come out from behind the clouds,
Until flowers on branches, like colored lanterns, vie in beauty,
And the slender grass rocks light-footed fireflies.

Xu Zhimo April 1931
Translated by Michelle Yeh

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