»  Xu Zhimo's "Leaving Cambridge Again"


Leaving Cambridge Again

by Xu Zhimo  (1897-1931)


•  Background

Xu Zhimo (pronunciation here) was a poet, a bright star in the literary constellation of 1920s China. There is a good account of his life and career in Jonathan Spence's 1981 book The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Chapters 6-8. At the time of his death Xu was, says Spence, "China's most famous writer apart from Lu Xun."

Born into a large and prosperous merchant family in Zhejiang Province, Xu went to the West to complete his tertiary education. He studied in the U.S.A. 1918-20; then, inspired by the writings of Bertrand Russell, moved to England. After a few months at the London School of Economics he transferred to King's College, Cambridge. His wife came from China to join him. In the autumn of 1921, however, Xu's wife left to study in Germany. Early the next year she agreed to a divorce. (It had been an arranged marriage; arranged marriages were regarded with embarrassment by their generation of educated Chinese; her family were well-off and supportive.)

So through the spring and summer of 1922 Xu lived by himself in Cambridge. Those few months seem to have been a golden idyll for 25-year-old Xu, one that he cherished in memory for the rest of his life. Spence:

So the spring and summer passed, in conversation with friends, in lying on the banks of the River Cam gazing at the meadows of King's and at the bridge he loved so much in front of Clare College; in reading, in punting, in writing; in dreaming, or in riding his bicycle at frenzied speed into the light of the setting sun to extend for a few moments the length of the day that was passing. His friends were varied and fascinating: in Cambridge he moved in a circle that included Dickinson, E.M. Forster, I.A. Richards; in London he continued to see H.G. Wells and got to know John Middleton Murry, Bertrand Russell …, Roger Fry, and Arthur Waley.

Xu returned to China in the autumn of 1922, but visited England again in the summer and autumn of 1928, briefly renewing the acquaintance with his beloved Cambridge. This poem, dated November 6th 1928, was written during, or soon after, that later visit.

I knew about Xu from scattered readings in modern Chinese cultural history, but had never engaged with his verse. Then, in summer of 2020, I read Cheryl Misak's biography of the English mathematician, logician, philosopher, and economist Frank Ramsey.

Ramsey had come up to King's in the autumn of 1920, aged seventeen, and at once made many friends. In Chapter 4 of Misak's book we read:

Frank also became very friendly with Tsemou Hsu (or Xu Zhimo), an important modernist Chinese poet, and a bridge between English and Chinese culture. He had been educated … in the US and was a research scholar at King's from 1920 to 1922. In his brief time in Cambridge, he was embraced by Bloomsbury and by Frank and his friends. He taught the more mathematically inclined how to play the ancient and abstract strategic board game wei-chi, or Go.

That brief reference has a footnote attached:

Hsu's life was cut short in an airplane accident in 1931. His poem "Leaving Cambridge" is still a school staple in China, and King's College has a memorial stone and an annual Poetry and Arts Festival in his name and honour.

I checked with Mrs Derbyshire. She confirmed that "Leaving Cambridge" is indeed a classroom staple, and recited the first stanza from memory.

My interest thus piqued, I went looking for the poem. It is a charming piece, glowing with bitter-sweet recollection of that 1922 idyll. It is, however, of the type whose charm is hard to capture in translation. None of the English versions on the internet is very good. I've attempted my own, but am not very happy with it.

There has been at least one TV biopic about Xu. The first 20 episodes (I don't know how many there are altogether) can be seen on YouTube, although there are unfortunately no subtitles. For the opening episode, cut'n'paste this into the YouTube search box: 人间四月天 01.

[Note, by the way, that even well-educated Chinese people of recent generations are not always aware that the poem is about Cambridge. In modern Chinese, "Cambridge" is transcribed as "劍橋," Jiàn-qiáo, literally "Sword-bridge." Xu's transcription as "康橋," Kāng qiáo, literally "Health-bridge," strikes a modern Chinese eye as just referring to some bridge or other with personal meaning for the poet. I suppose Xu's transcription must have had some currency in his time; but the oldest reference book I have, a 1947 辭海 (encyclopedia/dictionary), transcribes "Cambridge" as "岡布里治," Gāng-bù-lĭ-zhì, a plain sound-transliteration with no reference to either Xu's usage or the current one.

These confusions are mutual. If you think the Kāng qiáo / Jiàn-qiáo / Gāng-bù-lĭ-zhì business is mighty annoying of the Chinese, pick up one of the older English-language texts about China and see if you can locate Amoy, Swatow, Teochew, and Port Arthur.]


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem






不是清泉, 是天上虹。

尋夢? 撐一支長篙,



Transcribed into pinyin:

    zài bié kāng qiáo

qīng qīng de wŏ zŏu le,
zhèng rú wŏ qīng qīng de lái;
wŏ qīng qīng de zhāo shŏu,
zuò bié xī tiān de yún căi.

nà hé pàn de jīn liŭ,
shì xī yáng zhōng de xīn niáng;
bō guāng lĭ de yàn yĭng,
zài wŏ de xīn tóu dàng yàng.

ruăn ní shàng de qīng xìng,
yóu yóu dì zài shuĭ dĭ zhāo yáo;
zài kāng hé de róu bō lĭ,
wŏ gān xīn zuò yī tiáo shuĭ căo!

nà yú yīn xià de yī tán,
bù shì qīng quán, shì tiān shàng hóng.
róu suì zài fú zăo jiān,
chén diàn zhù căi hóng sì de mèng.

xún mèng? chēng yī zhī cháng gāo,
xiàng qīng căo gēng qīng chù màn sù,
măn zài yī chuán xīng huī,
zài xīng huī bān lán lĭ fàng gē.

dàn wŏ bù néng fàng gē,
qiāo qiāo shì bié lí de shēng xiāo;
xià chóng yě wèi wŏ chén mò,
chén mò shì jīn wăn de kāng qiáo.

qiāo qiāo de wŏ zŏu le,
zhèng rú wŏ qiāo qiāo de lái;
wŏ huī yī huī yī xiù,
bù dài zŏu yī piàn yún căi.

My translation:

    Leaving Cambridge Again

Lightly I have left,
As lightly as I came;
Lightly waving a hand
Farewell to the western clouds.

Golden willows by the riverside path
Are new brides in the evening sun;
Lovely images in the shimmering waves —
Restless ripples to my heart.

Fringed water-lilies from the soft mud
Sway supple beneath the stream;
In the gentle rhythms of the Cam
I'd gladly be such a riverplant!

That pool in the elm-trees' shade
Is not clear water but a rainbow
In twisted shards among the floating weeds —
Rainbow dreams lost in the silt.

Looking for dreams? Grab a punt-pole,
Head upstream to greener grass, fuller water,
Your boat brimming with starlight —
And in that radiance, sing out free!

But I cannot sing out free.
Silence is the music of my parting.
Even the summertime bugs are mute;
Stilled is Cambridge this evening.

Softly I have left,
As softly as I came;
I give my sleeve a shake
And bring away not one shred of cloud.

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

    Again leave Cambridge

Lightly I have gone
Just as I lightly came
I lightly wave my hand
Make parting west sky's clouds

That river pathways' golden willows
Are new brides in the evening sun
Waves' brightness-in lovely images
In my heart agitated ripples

Soft mud-in's green fringed-water-lily
Oilily in water below wave
In Cam river's gentle wave ripples
I gladly heart make one string water-grass

That elm shade-under-y one pond
Not is clear spring, is sky-at rainbow
Twist fragments at float weed among
Sink sediment manifest colored rainbow resemble-y dream

Seek dream? Support one long punt-pole
Towards green grass more green overflow upstream
Full loaded one boat star brightness
In star brightness mottled multicolored-in free sing

But I not able free sing
Silent silent is leave depart-y pipes flutes
Summer insects also for me sink silent
Sink silent is this evening's Cambridge

Silent silent-ly I have gone
Just as I silently came;
I shake one shake clothes sleeve
Not carry go one strip cloud