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Chinese tourists flock to Cambridge to honor poet

Visitors drawn to festival and memorial for Xu Zhimo's renowned verse

The lawns and River Cam at King's College, where Xu Zhimo's memorical garden is located. (Photo by John Krich)

CAMBRIDGE, U.K. -- "Quietly I am leaving, just as quietly I came," wrote 20th century Chinese poet Xu Zhimo about his days at Cambridge University. Yet thanks to his verse, the hallowed courtyards of its famed colleges echo these days with the excited and decidedly unscholarly shouts of Mandarin-speaking tour groups.

On the streets that front the ancient buildings and in the famed punts that offer leisurely rides along the Cam River, not just during summer travel season but throughout the year, visitors from mainland China appear to be crowding out all others in this normally tranquil town of barely 125,000 people.

One recent U.K. newspaper survey placed Cambridge as the third most-visited stop for the estimated half a million -- and rising -- Chinese visiting the country each year, coming after Buckingham Palace in London and the Bicester Village discount shopping mall near Oxford. But their interest has less to do with dreams of future academic glory for Chinese students than the past education of a poet who left England exactly 90 years ago.

According to Hao Chen, a graduate student at the University, "It may not be the only reason that Chinese come to Cambridge, but the first item they want to see is Xu Zhimo's memorial stone and the first thing they want to do is have their picture taken there."

Since August, they have had more incentive to make the journey to snap photos there. Now, next to the stone set just over the bridge behind King's College, etched with lines from Xu Zhimo's plaintive work, a small but highly evocative and decidedly Asian-style garden has been planted. Set around a symbolic yin-yang-shaped centerpiece, the garden features traditional Chinese pottery, plants native to the poet's home region in the Yangtze River delta and a crescent-shaped bench for contemplation -- all adding to the draw of the surrounding river views.

Chinese tourists gather near King's College. (Photo by John Krich)

"As schoolchildren, hundreds of millions of Chinese have to memorize and recite Xu Zhimo's 'On Leaving Cambridge Again,'" notes Duhan Yang, a Cambridge PhD candidate who also works at Cam Rivers Publishing, which has produced a catalogue on the poet's life. "It's the key reason they want to see the actual place."

Xu Zhimo when he was at Cambridge (Courtesy of Cam Rivers Publishing)

That is especially true because the poem itself vividly extols the scenic beauty of the "shimmering river" seen from "a punt laden with starlight," and its bank laden with "golden willows" like "young brides."

"The trees described are also very similar to the landscape in China," said Alan MacFarlane, an anthropologist and distinguished author who helped found the town's annual Xu Zhimo Festival of Poetry and Art in 2015. "This fortunate connection has allowed for so many cultural and academic exchanges between Cambridge and China."

"Events like this, centered around art, poetry and beauty, are not political or ideological, so they make everyone feel more comfortable," says Zilan Wang, the festival director and a long-time project research associate at the University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, having just returned from leading a tour of China by the King's College Choir (who have put to music several works by other Chinese writers).

The memorial stone for Xu Zhimo, etched with his famous poem about Cambridge (Photo by John Krich)

MacFarlane, who can recount a history of King College scholars' involvement with China dating back to the 1840s, seems especially proud of the recent dedication of the garden and the opening event of this year's Xu Zhimo Festival, which he notes was "streamed live to China." Television coverage of the memorial allowed "400 million in China to see views of the river and King's," he adds.

The week-long festival, held every August, has been attended by such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, famed poet Bei Dao and the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. -- as well as numerous landscape artists and Xu Zhimo's descendants, who are now living in the United States.

Professor Alan MacFarlane in the new memorial garden he helped create (Photo by John Krich)

This belated recognition is especially poignant because of the writer's tragic history. As one of a rare handful of Chinese able to study abroad in the early days of the 20th-Century, Xu Zhimo was inspired by members of the famed Bloomsbury group, such as Virginia Woolf, as well as Asian luminaries like the Indian philosopher-poet Tagore, and was among the first to help use Westernized aesthetics to break away from rigid Chinese classical literature.

However, he received little recognition for this in his native land. Once back in China, he was swept up in the chaos of the ongoing civil war and a personal life in turmoil. In 1931, returning to Beijing from a mission to Shanghai to tend to his second, socialite wife who had become an opium addict, he was the sole passenger killed when a postal service plane crashed -- just three years after his idyllic stay in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, the actual beloved willow described by the forlorn poet recently fell victim to disease. But ash from the old tree is contained within the seven glazed pots in the memorial gardens and cuttings grown from the original branches have been sent to Haining, Xu Zhimo's birthplace. With the creation and inauguration of the riverside garden, festival director Wang says there are plans to use the new outdoor space for expanded activities, such as readings and tea ceremonies, Chinese-style.

A Chinese tourist takes a picture of King's College. (Photo by John Kritch)

"When I first came to Cambridge 16 years ago, most people thought I was Japanese -- they couldn't distinguish," she recounts. "But now with the growth of a middle class, so many Chinese can afford to come here and to send their children to study."

Aside from the 1,174 students enrolled at the university last year, the Chinese influence in Cambridge is expanding into real estate investment, with the 150-acre Cambridge Science Park recently seeing a 200 million pounds ($259 million) investment from Chinese companies. An informal Chinatown of restaurants and groceries has sprung up along the main drag of Regent Street. One of the more authentic restaurants, Seven Days, boasts on its menu "the favorite dish of Stephen Hawking" -- an east-west melange of stir-fried potatoes and red peppers that the world-renowned physicist apparently ate on his birthday.

But when it comes to Chinese, Xu Zhimo is still Cambridge's most illustrious grad.

"It's quite astounding that these 30 lines of verse, banned during the Cultural Revolution, should be so deeply loved," notes MacFarlane. "Where Xu Zhimo basked in the beauty of Cambridge, now we get to bask in his reflected glory."

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