Saturday, November 19, 2011

Xu diary melodrama

Xu Zhimo, a much celebrated Chinese poet, might have been celebrating his 80th birthday today had he not died young in a plane crash. Collections of his romantic poems and essays continue to be published, as do biographies celebrating the romance of his life. By incorporating their lives into their literature, one writer says, he and his friends elevated personal details to the level of artistic and historical importance. Even the fate of Xu’s diaries has been likened to a melodrama.

Xu was born in Haining, Zhejiang, in the far east of China, some 125 km from Shanghai. In 1915, he married Zhang Youyi, and the following year took up law studies. For a few years, he also studied economics and politics in the United States, and in Cambridge, Britain, where, it is said, he fell in love with English romantic poetry. Also in England, he fell in love with the beautiful and talented Lin Huiyin who would soon return to China and become a well-known architect and writer.

By 1922, Xu was also back in China, and had divorced from his first wife (the divorce is considered the first to take place in China). He focused his literary efforts on writing poetry and translating Western romantic forms. He also set up poetry societies, and worked as an editor and professor at several schools. In 1926, he married the third love of his life, Lu Xiaoman. Among his friends was Ling Shuhua, a writer who would have an affair with Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Julian Bell, when he was in China, and enjoy a correspondence with Woolf herself.

On his way to a lecture by Lin Huiyin, Xu died in a plane crash on 19 November 1931, aged but 34. He left behind poems, essays, novels as well as translations, and diaries. Wikipedia has a short biography, and there’s a little more info at Thinkquest. Several collections of Xu Zhimo’s work have been published in Chinese, the most recent and most comprehensive came out in 2005 - see China Radio International’s website. It was announced that ‘the most precious inclusion in the collection are two of the poet’s diaries, which had been looted by a Japanese soldier during the Japanese invasion of China in the 30s but later returned’.

A story about Xu’s diaries is included in A Thousand Miles of Dreams - the journeys of two Chinese sisters by Sasha Su-Ling Welland published by Rowman and Littlefield. The two sisters of the title are Welland’s grandmother who emigrated to the US and changed her name to Amy, and Ling Shuhua. Here is the paragraph from Welland’s book - partly available at Googlebooks - which explains the story.

‘When Ling Shuhua returned to Beijing for Xu Zhimo’s memorial, she provoked a battle over his ‘Eight Treasures Box’, which contained the diaries, letters and manuscripts he had left with her before departing for Europe in 1925. Although it had changed hands in the intervening years, Shuhua had possession of it when Zhimo died. Hu Shi planned to coordinate the publication of the poet’s selected letters, so Shuhua gave the ‘Eight Treasures Box’ to him, not knowing that he would pass it on to Xu Xhimo’s former lover Lin Huiyin to itemize the contents. On learning this, Shuhua wrote a frantic letter to Hu Shi. She feared that Lin Huiyin might destroy the diaries of Xu Zhimo’s widow Lu Xiaoman, now also in the box and full of curses for Lin. Shuhua defended her qualifications to serve as editor of Xu Zhimo’s writing. Once Lin Huiyin began her job of catologing, she discovered that Shuhua had removed two of Xu Zihmo’s diaries from the time at Cambridge when he met and fell in love with Lin. Hu Shi wrote to Shuhua, guessing that she wanted to write a biography based on the diaries, and criticized her for splitting up the poet’s effects and creating bad feeling among friends. Eventually Shuhua returned the diaries, but several pages remained missing.

The melodrama of this scramble after a box of letters and diaries shows the extent to which this generation of authors saw themselves as actors in an era of momentous change. By incorporating their lives into their literature, they elevated personal details to the level of artistic and historical importance.’

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