Farewell Again, Xu Zhimo: 83 years since the death of one of China's greatest poets

By Ryan Kilpatrick, November 19, 2014

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19 November marks the anniversary of Xu Zhimo's death. Indisputably one of modern China's greatest poets, Xu is best remembered for his poet "Goodbye Again, Cambridge."

Born in Haining, Zhejiang in 1897, Xu was just 34 when his Beijing-bound flight  crashed into the foothills of mighty Taishan. In his relatively short career, however, Xu managed to naturalize Western Romantic forms into Chinese poetry, written in the vernacular Baihua, like no other. 

Although he initially travelled Stateside to persue studies at Columbia University, Xu said that he found America "intolerable" (ouch) and left in 1921. England, however, was much more to his liking, and at King's College, Cambridge he fell in love not only with the ancient university town, but also with Keats, Shelley and the English Romantics, whose works he translated into Chinese.

Indeed, Xu seemed to fall in love a lot, and unfortunately could never be as devoted a husband as he was a poet. While married to his first wife Zhang Youyi, Xu embarked on an affair Lin Huiyin. Lin, however, was promised to Liang Sicheng, the famed 'Father of Modern Chinese Architecture' and son of the great reformist Liang Qichao. Xu then became involved with a friend's wife, who later divorced her husband and married Xu.  Xu, however, also became romantically linked with Pearl S. Buck, the Chinese-born American author of The Good Earth, and pro-Communist American journalist Agnes Smedley. Evidently, he didn't find American women as intolerable as the country itself. 

His heart may always have belonged to the unattainable Lin, however, for it was to attend a given to be given by her that he boarded that ill-fated flight from Nanjing. 

To this day, Xu Zhimo's most famous work remains a necessary part of Chinese children's education - which, if nothing else, has turned the backs of King's College, Cambridge into an unexpected must-see destination for Chinese travelers on their Grand Tours of Europe. A memorial stone has even been erected there with the first and last two lines of "Goodbye Again, Cambridge"...

Softly I am leaving,
Just as softly as I came;
I softly wave goodbye
To the clouds in the western sky.

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun;
Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river
Keep undulating in my heart.

The green tape grass rooted in the soft mud
Sways leisurely in the water;
I am willing to be such a waterweed
In the gentle flow of the River Cam.

That pool in the shade of elm trees
Holds not clear spring water, but a rainbow
Crumpled in the midst of duckweeds,
Where rainbow-like dreams settle.

To seek a dream? Go punting with a long pole,
Upstream to where green grass is greener,
With the punt laden with starlight,
And sing out loud in its radiance.

Yet now I cannot sing out loud,
Peace is my farewell music;
Even crickets are now silent for me,
For Cambridge this evening is silent.

Quietly I am leaving,
Just as quietly as I came;
Gently waving my sleeve,
I am not taking away a single cloud.

Sadly, but in no way surprisingly, much of the original work's magic is lost in translation. If you don't believe us, though, just listen to the poem set to music and performed Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin and the Nova Festival Choir. 

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