Nirmal DASS

Picture of a young Xu Zhimo, a poet renowned for introducing Western poetic forms and techniques that allowed tradition-bound Chinese verse to acquire a freer form of expression.

Xu Zhimo was a modernist poet who actively sought to break Chinese poetry from its traditional roots and align it to Western poetic models, especially those found in the Romantic poets.

Xu Zhimo, the poet renowned for introducing Western poetic forms and techniques that allowed tradition-bound Chinese verse to acquire a freer form of expression, was born in the town of Xiashi, Sichuan Province, 15 January 1895. Xu was a precocious child who showed at an early age a delight in nature, a delight that would continue to hold sway in his poetry. His early education was in Hanzhou Secondary School, where he met and befriended Yu Da Fu, the future story writer and poet.

Shortly after graduating at the age of twenty in 1915, Xu entered an arranged marriage, according to the dictates of traditional Chinese society. His bride was Zhang Youyi. But the marriage was a failure from the outset, and, perhaps to escape it, Xu enrolled in Tianjin University, where he soon came under the influence of the reformer Liang Qichao, who encouraged Xu to continue his education in the West. Xu applied to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to study history and came to the United States in 1918. The next year he transferred to Columbia University, where he took up the study of economics. Before long, he came to feel that the United States was a place where he could not obtain the type of education that he wished to receive. He left for Great Britain in 1920, where he was accepted into the London School of Economics. Eventually he would enter Cambridge University, which at last suited his sensibilities, for it was there that he discovered the works of the English Romantics, as well as the French Symbolists. Xu felt an immediate affinity for their work.

The Poetry of Xu Zhimo


For a long time I have been gazing at death

Since the day the bond of love was sealed in
my heart

I have been gazing at death—

That realm of perpetual beauty; to death

I happily surrendered myself because

It is the birth of the brilliant and the free.

From that moment on I scorned my body

And even less did I care

For the floating glory of this life;

I longed to trust my breath to time

Even more infinite than it.

Then my eyes would urn into the glittering

And my glistening hair, the clouds that are

All over the sky. Buffeting winds would

Whirl in front of my chest, before my eyes;

Waves would lap at my ankles, their sacred

Surging with each breaker!

My thoughts would be lightning

That whips up a dance of dragons and snakes
on the horizon;

My voice would thunder, suddenly awakening

The Spring and awakening life. Ah!

Beyond imagination, beyond compare

Is love’s inspiration, love’s power.

Source: Lau, J. S. M., & Goldblatt, H.. (Eds.). (1995.). The Columbia anthology of modern Chinese literature. (Kai-yu Hsu, Trans.). New York, Columbia University Press, 504.

His Cambridge years can be termed his transformative years, for he not only discovered a form of poetry to which he felt an innate attraction but also met and fell in love with Lin Huiyin, who was only sixteen at the time and a student at Saint Mary’s College in London. He quickly obtained a divorce from his wife so he could marry Lin. It was an effort in vain, however. Lin returned to China with her father in 1922. Distraught at the outcome of events, Xu also headed back home and tried to find Lin. But she had already married Liang Sicheng. Thereafter Xu devoted himself entirely to poetry and worked intensely to change Chinese poetry radically by aligning it with Western traditions.

His first collection, titled simply Zhimo’s Poems, appeared in 1925. The poems were heavily influenced by the English Romantics, especially Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth. Xu soon befriended like-minded poets, also Western educated, such as Wen Yiduo, and became the founding member of the Crescent Moon Society, which was established in 1927. The society published the influential journal Xinyue (Crescent Moon). Xu’s next collections, A Night in Florence (1927), Fierce Tiger (1928), and Love’s Inspiration (1930) showed a further refinement of expression in which the Western elements become more thoroughly blended with his own sensibilities. The larger intention of his poetry was to reject the tradition-bound morality of old China so that a new China might be born, one in which the ideas of Western enlightenment would pervade. Xu’s poetic experimentations were tragically cut short when he died in an airplane crash on 19 November 1931.

Further Reading

Goldman, M., & Lee, L. O. (Eds.). (2002). An intellectual history of modern China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lau, J., & Goldblatt, H. (Eds.). (1994). Columbia anthology of modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lee, L. O. (1973). The modern generation of modern Chinese writers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDougall, B., & Kam, L. (1997). The literature of China in the twentieth century. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spence, J. D. (1981). The Chinese and their revolution, 1895-1980. New York: The Viking Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). XU Zhimo. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2532–2533. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

XU Zhimo (Xú Zhìmó ???)|Xú Zhìmó ??? (XU Zhimo)

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