Famed Chinese poet Xu Zhimo commemorated at Cambridge

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/17 17:43:39

Xu Zhimo's grandson Tony Hsu Photo: Sun Wei/GT


King's College Dining Hall, Cambridge Photo: Ge Dalong

One of the preeminent events celebrating cultural exchange between China and the UK, the annual Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival was hosted by the Cambridge Rivers Project and the King's College Cambridge Development Office at King's College, Cambridge on August 11 and 12.

The theme of this year's festival was "gardens."

Many of the most beautiful paintings and poems, both in China and Britain, celebrate gardens. The Chinese and British have both attached special importance to gardens over the centuries and have developed great skill in landscaping and horticulture. Gardens, like the best poetry in our imaginations, stimulate all five of the senses - hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste.

It is believed that the beautiful semi-formal "Backs" at King's College, laid out by the great British landscape designer Capability Brown, with their willows, river and meadows made a deep impression on the famed Chinese poet Xu Zhimo while he was there. 

A number of famous poets including Nobel Prize nominees Bei Dao, Ouyang Jianghe and Yang Lian, and T. S. Eliot Prize nominees Lavinia Greenlaw and Aleš Šteger, the festival's artistic director, attended the event, as did many other prominent figures in the poetry world.

After reading his poem "The Rose of Times" and Xu Zhimo's poem "Second Farewell to Cambridge," Bei Dao told the gathered audience, "It's been 100 years since China's modern poetry got its start in 1916, yet it is still in its childhood. It will keep growing and prospering. We should pay tribute to our predecessors such as Xu Zhimo who contributed a lot to Chinese modern poetry."

The festival awarded Chinese poet Ouyang Jianghe and Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov the Silver Willow Award, in recognition of their contributions to poetry.

An exhibition of artworks following the "gardens" theme by esteemed calligraphers and artists from China, Europe and the UK was also held at the event.

Cambridge life

"It's important in a sense that Xu Zhimo wouldn't be a poet at all if he hadn't come to Cambridge," Alan Macfarlane, Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and a Life Fellow at King's College, told the Global Times.

Xu studied at King's College from 1921 to 1922. When Xu came to Cambridge, he was interested in politics and economics, which he had studied in London.

"It was being in Cambridge that made him a poet. It completely took his heart, his mind and his spirit. He had a love affair, and also fell in love with European poetry. It changed Xu Zhimo into a poet," Macfarlane said.

During his time at Cambridge, Xu made significant friendships with a number of intellectuals, poets and artists. He was tutored by the eminent political scientist and philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and became closely acquainted with the painter and critic Roger Fry of the Bloomsbury Group. 

Xu's poem "Second Farewell to Cambridge" is read by millions of school-children across China, and his life and work was central to the first great opening-up of China to Western artistic and literary influences during the 1920s and 1930s.

"Xu was one of the central figures in the new cultural development in China after the fall of the Qing Empire [1644-1911]. He, along with Liang Qichao, Wang Guowei and other thinkers and writers, introduced Western ideas and thoughts," Macfarlane explained.

In July 2008, a two-ton white Beijing marble stone engraved with the first and final lines of Xu's "Second Farewell to Cambridge" was installed at the Backs of King's College. The monument attracts vast numbers of Chinese visitors, academics and students every year.

This poetic ode to Cambridge not only occupies a very special place in the modern Chinese imagination, but also provides one of the clearest clues as to why Cambridge has become an increasingly strong magnet for many Chinese. The work becomes all the more poignant considering Xu died at a tragically young age in a plane crash in 1931. 

Macfarlane said the school is hoping to create "the first Chinese garden in Cambridge" around the stone within the next two years. 

Golden era

Xu's grandson Tony Hsu also attended the poetry festival and recited another Xu masterpiece, "Chance."

Hsu told the Global Times, "It's a wonderful thing to bring in so many heavyweight poets and artists to an event. It's the third year that Cambridge has held events commemorating Xu Zhimo. Taking various themes each year, events like this are an important opportunity for promoting China's poetry and art."

Macfarlane mentioned that there aren't many other events in Britain like this one where you can find top Chinese calligraphers, painters and poets.

"This was a unique occasion," Macfarlane said, adding that art and culture are excellent mediums for increasing understanding between different civilizations. Literature, poetry, music have the ability to cross boundaries and can help bridge gaps between cultures.

Ouyang Jianghe also emphasized the festival's ability to act as a bridge connecting China and the Western world.

"Poetry penetrates everything. As an ancient civilization, China can present its nature through poetry," Ouyang told the Global Times, adding that the heart, image and culture delivered through poetry are things poetry lovers appreciate. 

Poetry has a long tradition in China, and now even in the Internet age  contemporary poetry is still very lively and dynamic.

"Compared to the 1920s and 1930s, we need poetry more than ever. Today is a golden age for poetry,"Yang Lian said, adding that there have never been as many poets, poetry festivals or poetry prizes in China's history as there have been since 1949.

"The most important thing is that the Internet allows people to share their life experiences with each other directly through Chinese poetry. Migrant workers, farmers and ordinary people are able to take to the Internet to express themselves," Yang noted.

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, many people are faced with changes that can seem frightening. Fortunately poetry is there to help guide us.  

"Poetry evokes memories, gives you a pleasant time and connects you with something above yourself. As we live in a very rushed contemporary age, in many ways we need more of this. We need this period of quietness, beauty and reflection, which allows you to step back, to be human in a different way," said Macfarlane.

Newspaper headline: Garden of delight

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