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  • Chasing the Modern: The Twentieth-Century Life of Poet Xu Zhimo by Tony S. Hsu
  • Hal Swindall (bio)
Tony S. Hsu. Chasing the Modern: The Twentieth-Century Life of Poet Xu Zhimo. Cambridge: Cambridge Rivers Press, 2017. xx, 210 pp. Paperback $20.99, ISBN 978-0-692-85981-0.

This highly readable and well-illustrated volume adds yet more to the recent store of knowledge about the Western-influenced poets of China between the wars, besides containing useful subsections and appendices providing background information on the place, people, and period that will fascinate both the scholarly specialist and the general reader. The fact that its author is the grandson of its subject makes the twists and turns of twentieth-century Chinese history all the more intriguing, but Hsu manages to present the deeds and words of his grandfather objectively, allowing the reader to draw conclusions about both Xu Zhimo and the context in which he developed. Xu's life was tragic even before his early death, since like all Chinese literati of the early twentieth century, he was torn between his antiquated Chinese heritage and the question of how to reconcile it with Western modernity. In his case, this struggle took on a particularly romantic character, even for a poet, raising the question of what direction China would have taken if the Communists had not taken over, and/or Xu had not died young.

Born to Zhejiang Province gentry in 1897, Xu was highly precocious as a child, especially in classical Chinese literature and the English language, and so he and everyone in his family expected a brilliant future for him (pp. 7–8). Xu's early promise, however, might be said to have ironically caused the greatest tragedy of his life: his arranged marriage to a girl also of Zhejiang gentry stock named Zhang Youyi. Youyi's father was so impressed by an essay by the teenaged Xu that he proposed the match to Xu's father, who agreed; also ironically, a fortune teller whom Zhang's parents consulted warned against the marriage, because Youyi had been born in the year of the rat; therefore, they changed her birth certificate to the year of the dog (pp. 8–9), but this did not trick fate. On the surface, the teenagers were well suited to each other, since they both came from the same social background, were educated, and [End Page 378] held progressive attitudes; Youyi even wore a pink wedding dress at their marriage, since it combined Chinese red and Western white (p. 9). Alas, Youyi was not progressive enough for Xu, who reportedly recoiled when he saw her photograph, calling her a "bumpkin" and going into despondency at the prospect of having to wed her. There was another problem, too: an incurable romantic, Xu believed that marriages should be based on passion between lovers who choose each other and not on an arrangement made by parents (p. 9).

Despite disliking marriage to Youyi, Xu continued his education at several universities, including Peking University, and predictably enough he joined the New Culture Movement, besides being mentored by Liang Qichao, who had brought Western economics to China (p. 15). Knowing Liang and other Chinese intellectuals who had studied abroad fired Xu's enthusiasm to do the same, since he greatly desired to expand his mind; he therefore left Youyi and their infant son with his parents to study history at Clark College in Massachusetts. Here, he joined other Chinese students in discussing their ambitions for modernizing China when they returned home, and after graduating with honors, Xu enrolled for an M.A. in political science at Columbia University (pp. 16-17). As though an advanced degree from a top American university were not enough, Xu decided to pursue even more studies in England, because, according to Hsu, he felt "disillusioned" with the United States and was smitten with Bertrand Russell, to whom he had been introduced by Liang Qichao (pp. 18-19). Hsu does not say so, but the reader infers that his grandfather's continued sojourn abroad also derived from a desire to avoid living with Youyi and their son, as well as an aversion to China...


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