M. Cristina Pisciotta
Xu Zhimo, one of the leading figures in modern Chinese romantic poetry, has been described by Robert Payne as “the most brilliant representative in China of a culture that came out of Cambridge” (35). He was born in Chejiang to a well-off family and was considered a “wonder boy.” After attending a Western-style college in Shanghai he left for America, where he studied political science and economics first at Clark University and then at Columbia. When he moved to England in 1921, he still had in mind a career in politics or finance and enrolled in the London School of Economics. Here, however, his life changed, and several meetings of fundamental importance (for example, with Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, and Bertrand Russell) led him unexpectedly into literature. It was at Cambridge that the poet emerged: the character of the town, its river, its countryside, the lively academic life, and the highly intense social and intellectual relationships were to remain the core experiences of his life. (“To spend an evening on the banks of the river…is a panacea for the soul …night after night under the bridges in a kind of enchantment, ” Xu Zhimo quanji, 3:232.) It was also at Cambridge that he began a “journey through feelings” (“Zhimo shuxin, ” in Xu Zhimo quanji, 4:358), which was for him a journey of increasing Westernization.
Returning to China in late 1922, teaching Western literature at Peking University, and studying with his great friend Liang Qichao (the last great philosopher of classical China, who marked the passage to modern thought), he won instant popularity for the poems related to his European experience and for a kind of diary of feelings written in a mixture of Chinese and English (1922). This was the period when Chinese poetry moved into free verse, signaling a definitive break with traditional fixed models, and came closer to contemporary reality with the passage from antiquated literary language to a colloquial mode