The opening of the Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival on July 29 at King’s College, Cambridge, left media in UK scratching their heads over an unexplained phenomenon: Chinese visitors flocking in record numbers to what a sport-jacketed Cambridge student, in a 2013 video by the BBC (the first time the broadcaster took notice of this trend), called the “most boring” bridge on the Cam.
According to Visit Britain, the UK saw 8.3 million Chinese tourists in the first quarter of 2017. Cambridge is one of the most popular destinations, with 14,000 overnight stays between 2014 and 2016.
The UK’s official Visit Britain website cites ancient heritage and contemporary culture as the country’s typical draws for Chinese visitors. However, the bridge (which connects King’s College to Scholar’s Piece, a plot of farmland just behind) attracts pilgrimages from Chinese tourists who grew up with the work of modern Chinese poet Xu Zhimo (徐志摩), namesake of the festival—in particular, his poem “Zai Bie Kang Qiao” (再别康桥, “On Leaving Cambridge Again”), a staple of middle school literature classes across China and referenced in songs by Mando-pop singers from Yoga Lin to S.H.E.
Born in 1897 in Zhejiang province, Xu’s career was typical of many Chinese intellectuals who came of age during the education reforms at the turn of the 20th century. Educated in a traditional Confucian academy in his early years, Xu left home at age 14 to study at Hangzhou’s first modern middle school alongside two other future luminaries in Chinese literature, Yu Dafu and Li Linsi, before embarking on a student career that would take him to Peking University and two years’ study in the United States before arriving in King’s College in 1920.
In 1923, a year after his return to China, he founded the Crescent Moon literary society, which emphasized lyricism and the preservation of ancient meters and form in reaction to the “free verse” championed of the iconoclastic “May Fourth” intellectuals. “Zai Bie Kang Qiao,” which Xu wrote in 1928 after making a return visit to the university, is considered to be a definitive work of the Crescent Moon movement.
Among his “May Fourth” contemporaries celebrated for their patriotism and political activism, Xu’s body of work, as well as his lore in contemporary China, stands out for its romanticism and pursuit of themes like nature, love, and beauty. His personal history is remembered mostly for its emotional intrigues—an affair with architect Lin Huiyin at Cambridge while in an arranged marriage with feminist Zhang Youyi, and romancing artist Lu Xiaoman, his second wife, while she was still married to his friend Wang Geng—as well as his death in a plane crash in 1931. For his epitaph, Xu’s friend and Crescent Moon colleague Hu Shih wrote, “His philosophy in life is one of pure convictions, consisting of just three words: one is love, one is freedom, one is beauty.”
The poem is taught in Chinese schools as an example of Western influences on modern Chinese poetry. Chinese scholars like to compare both Xu’s life and work with those of English romantic poets such as Shelley and Keats—and perhaps it’s the poem’s “English” atmospherics, combined with the sumptuous descriptions of natural beauty along the river, that makes King’s College the ideal pilgrimage spot for Chinese visitors to the UK. The college itself, it must be said, has been doing what it can to attract them: In 2008, a stone carved with the first and last lines of Xu’s poem was placed beside the bridge. The festival was started in 2015, with each year’s theme celebrating some aspect of British-Chinese cultural connections—gardens (last year’s theme) and, of course, the river itself.
For those who want to experience this pilgrimage by proxy, here’s a translation of the poem, taken from The University of Cambridge: an 800th Anniversary Portrait:
On Leaving Cambridge Again
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.
Images from Mafengwo