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February 2016 Meeting Report

Xu Zhimo, China, and Cambridge by Nick Chrimes

In this very interesting talk by Nick Chrimes for residents of Sawston about the man who has been described as the Shakespeare of China, and who lived in Sawston while he was at Cambridge, the scene was set for how Cambridge became a University town.

By 1200, Cambridge was a thriving commercial community with good river access to Kings Lynn and beyond. In 1209, scholars from Oxford came to take refuge from hostile townsmen, and this eventually led to the founding of the university. By 1600, there were 60 universities in Europe, but only Oxford and Cambridge in England, and very little cross fertilisation with European universities, although Erasmus had been the first to come.

China meanwhile was progressing very well on its own and saw no need to have contact with the outside world. When, in the eighteenth century, England wanted to trade with China, particularly for tea, porcelain and silk, there was nothing that China wanted from England. This was why England developed the opium crop in India, to have something to sell to China.

Interest in China was not reciprocated until the 1911 revolution, but did join the allies in 1917. Even before this, Chinese workers dug trenches, repaired tanks, and assembled shells and many other tasks. The Chinese government hoped that their support would be rewarded by the return of Shandong province, the birthplace of Confucius, which had been seized by Germany in 1898. Instead the western powers handed it to Japan. This caused lasting resentment in China.

However, the ice had been broken, and China could no longer ignore the rest of the world. This brings us on to Xu Zhimo, one of the most renowned romantic poets of 20th century Chinese literature. He was born in 1897 and read law at Peking University in 1915-17. He went to America in 1918 to study history and later economics and politics. He was not happy there and in 1921 left to study at King's College Cambridge, where he fell in love with the romantic poetry of Keats and Shelley. He fell in love with Cambridge and became part of the Bloomsbury group and in particular was a friend of Roger Fry.

He chose to live in Sawston, it is thought at 26 London Road, rather than in Cambridge. It is assumed that this was to keep his wife, when she joined him, well away from his life in Cambridge. She cannot have had a happy time, isolated, and just cooking and cleaning for him, and he seems to have had many girl-friends during his time in America and England.

This is a translation of part of his poem on "Leaving the Revisited Cambridge." The first and last lines are on a stone behind the bridge in King's College.

Quietly now I leave the Cam,
As quietly as I came,
Gently wave farewell the clouded
Western sky aflame ---

There the golden willow stands
A bride of sunset's glow.
How its dancing ripples glint
And stir my heart below;

crowed rushes wave in water
bouncing with the weed
flowing slick by soft-soil'd banks ---
I long to thus proceed!

Stealth'ly now I part from Cam,
As bid farewell I must.
Waving sleeve so gently lest
a cloudspeck I should dust.

Jim Butchart

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